30 Years On: The Second Iranian Revolution?
Teheran, June 2009: men and women, arms knit in defiance, protesting against the corruption of few for the rights of many.
Could the changing face of technology, the emergence of an empowered female intelligentsia and a youthful population propel Iran into a new era of secular
Have we just seen, 30 years later, the counter-revolution of 1979?
Iran has endured a volatile political history. Before the 1953 coup d’état, orchestrated by the British and US governments in response to an attempted nationalisation
of the oil industry, Iran was one of the most progressive and democratic countries in the Middle East.
After the coup this liberal state was, over the following 25 years, ruled by an increasingly oppressive and brutal regime. Under the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, all
other political parties were eliminated and Iran became an autocracy.
The face of the Shah had become ubiquitous with an Orwellian nightmare and the populace was driven to starvation by corruption and unemployment. Accused of
being a Western puppet, the Shah was criticized by Iran’s Muslim leaders for his policy on secularisation and rapid modernization.
After the 1978 Iranian Revolution, the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Teheran. In April 1979 a national referendum overwhelmingly proclaimed Iran an Islamic
Republic. A few months later Ayatollah Khomeini becamethe Supreme Leader as the people voted for a theocratic constitution.
Was the recent turmoil in Iran a sign of frustration with the current theocracy?
A bitter working class were convinced by
Ayatollah Khomeini that a great Islamic
Republic would unite its people spiritually
and perhaps one day re-forge a modern
United Arabia in the East
The alleged election fraud of 2009 split the country. Supporters of the progressive opposition leader Mousavi demanded a recount, a request promptly rejected by the
current President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, through force and censorship.
Are there similarities between the conditions in Iran in 1979 and 2009 that drove people to protest?
Champagne and Caviar
In 1979 Iranians were hopeful: the new government would uphold the values and ideals promised by the new Islamic State and that proceeds of Iran’s abundant oil
reserves could finally be shared amongst the people.
The 1979 revolution was a response to a grossly corrupt monarchy that marginalised all but the elite. A bitter working class, joined by liberal leaders, were convinced
by Ayatollah Khomeini that a great Islamic Republic would unite its people spiritually and perhaps one day re-forge a modern United Arabia in the East.
Ironically for those who fought in 1979, these days drug addiction, prostitution and widespread corruption in Iran go hand in hand with the harsh realities of enforced
Islamic law. Poverty and unemployment are rampant.
Whilst the current government does not display acts of extravagance and elitism as before, there remains widespread corruption and great constraints on basic civil
Islam: The Rise of Anti-Western Sentiment
The 1979 revolution was heralded as a great victory for Islam; for the first time through popular support a broad spectrum of political groups joined together to establish a theocracy via democratic means.
Yet arguably the 2009 protests were largely an intellectual revolt, staged mostly by urban students for whom religion is becoming less relevant.
Indeed, the banning of condoms at the beginning of Islamic rule, later reversed, led to an unprecedented growth in birth rate. With two-thirds of the country under
the age of 30, anti-religious sentiment is growing.
However, the events of 9/11 and the subsequent occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq have sparked renewed Islamic zeal across the Middle East.
In addition to US hunts for Al Qaeda, the ongoing and unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict creates an ongoing tension between East and West in the region. This fact is
often used as a pretext by the Iranian government to rile the people employing religious and anti-semantic rhetoric.
The Twittering Revolution
One of the main reasons for the success of the 1979 revolution was the compelling oratory skill of Ayatollah Khomeini. He preached to an isolated and religious
audience thus facilitating rapid and unopposed reform.
However, with the advent of easy Internet access, information from diverse sources has become easily attainable. In this day and age, a government's capacity to
coerce and influence a population with propaganda has been greatly diminished.
Thus technological advances have promoted the breakdown of cultural borders between the East and the West particularly among young people.
In Teheran, young bloggers kept the world updated on the protests via real-time news posts and analysis. Western news ran videos posted on YouTube provoking
an international reaction.
Similarly, globalisation has enabled the flow of modernist ideas into Iran; the rights of women have become a major political chess piece.
Women played an important part in the recent protests, taking to the streets and making public speeches. Whilst they still may not have the same public or political
influence as men in Iranian society, their appeasement will, within the next few years, be of vital importance to the success of any political leadership.
The single most influential factor in the last decade of Iranian struggle for liberalisation is the formation of a large and powerful student movement. On one hand, the
increasingly liberal press and academia has opened the door to quiet criticism of government.
In Teheran, young bloggers kept the world
updated on the protests via real-time
news posts and analysis
On the other hand, it has provoked fears in government circles of a popular uprising. In response to a protest calling for greater press freedom in 1999 by students,
right wing vigilantes killed several of those involved in their dormitories.
The single most influential factor in the last
decade of Iranian struggle for liberalisation is
the formation of a large and powerful
Today, without a doubt Iranians are much more cynical of a religious and social utopia; many are starting to appreciate the worth of a government delivering equality
and economic growth. In 2009, most Iranians are not better off than they were pre-1979.
The 2009 protests were not a counter-revolution of 1979; Iran is still an Islamic nation without the desire to become a secular nation. But the unstoppable progression of
globalisation and the clear appetite for modernisation and reform shown by Iran's people ensures that dissent will flare and continue to build momentum.
After days of street violence and several deaths during the summer, there appear to be no quick solutions. Together with the backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor, Ahmadinejad has out rightly denied all allegations of electoral fraud and has shown he will use force to quell any, and all dissent.
This may not have been a second Green Revolution - but could nonetheless be a turning point in Iranian and Middle Eastern politics.
Whilst there is insufficient political momentum or due process to instigate great change from within the Iranian government, incremental reform may increase
opportunities for women and allow a greater degree of freedom for the press.
It is likely, however, that as long as the current theocratic political system is in place there will be little manoeuvre; supported by extreme religious and political factions any concession will be seen as a sell-out to the liberal movement.
Iran will change but it may be a long road.
Marcelo Vasquez Rios is a fourth year medical student undertaking a BSc in Management at Imperial College. He was inspired to write this piece by a recent trip to the Middle East where he experienced first-hand the clash of world cultures.