“We’re Tired of Revolution [in Iran]”

This is the second paper for Dr. Spooner’s class, NELC281: Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.  It is a brief historical survey of Iran and the 1979 Revolution, followed by a discussion of political discontentedness in Iran.


Disaffection with the ruling establishment in Iran has been growing since the late 1990s, and reached a peak in the summer of 2009. But the Iranian government is the product of a popular revolution, and is highly participatory. How then should we understand the expression of political discontent?


For all of its media-perception in the West, Iran is far from a monolithic political entity.[1]  And since the popular revolution of 1979, popular discontent has grown in Iran.  In order to understand the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath vis-à-vis political discontentedness, one must first consider its historical context.  Once said context is established, this paper will go on to understand the expression of political discontent in modern-day Iran.

Historical Context of the Iranian Revolution

Iranian Empires have risen and fallen since long before the spread of Islam to the region.  While the modern borders of the Persian nation have been largely defined by outsiders (namely British imperialists seeking to use Iran as a buffer state – similar to that of Afghanistan – between India and Russia), it rests at the center of old empires that have expanded and shrunk throughout the centuries.  From Cyrus the Great to the Arab conquests, from Zoroastrianism to Islam, Iran has seen its fair share of various regimes and influences.  These changes, however, were largely shifts from one dynastic family to another.  That is to say, several underlying identifying customs remained relatively constant from one regime to another: Persian poetry and literature, the pomp and circumstance of the royal court, and a particular system of administration.  Such traditions endured even drastic periods of regime change, such as when the Arabs introduced Islam into the region and implemented Arabic as the predominant form for religious writing (although Persian was still used for commentaries).  Iran faced another linguistic change during the 11th century, when the Turks came from the East and gradually came to rule the Iranian power centers (cities where the mountains meet the desert around central Iran), introducing Turkish as a popular spoken language.  This linguistic and ethnic shift laid the foundation for the Saffavid Empire in the 1500s, after which the Qajar and Pahlavi Dynasties assumed bureaucratic control.

Thus, seen through this historical lens, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 was the latest instance of Iranian regime change in a long line of administrative shifts.  To be sure, the leader of the 1979 Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, was raised, educated, and cultured in Iran.  However the fact that he was exiled and then came back to complete the Revolution puts him in league with a host of others who came to Iran from outside her borders to implement regime change – the Sassanians, the Arabs, the Turks, etc.

Of course, the 1979 Revolution didn’t occur without prompting.  The Pahlavi Dynasty had for decades catered to America and the West in hopes of currying favor and continuing to receive aid.  This, coupled with the Shah’s White Revolution – which sought to Westernize and thus modernize the country – caused a strong reaction among the country’s religious conservatives, who felt that their traditional way of life was under siege.  Khomeini was at the forefront of this voice for not only discontent but also defense of the Islamic way of life.  After stirring up popular resentment through a series of stinging critiques of the Iranian Government’s acquiescing to American requests, Khomeini was finally exiled in 1964.[2]  But such an action could not quell the popular discontentedness with the Pahlavis.  Khomeini continued studying and refining his model for an Islamic Republic until 1979, when the Revolution was successful.

For Khomeini’s Iran, however, the Revolution didn’t stop there.  From 1980-88, the Iran-Iraq War ravaged both countries.  In Iran, Khomeini appealed for support by citing the effort as a continuation of the Revolution.  By the time the war ended, the struggle against America and the West was resumed; after all, the government needed a scapegoat for which to blame the social and economic problems plaguing the populace.  In this way too, the Revolution and its ideals continued.  All the while, Khomeini’s model of an Iranian government rooted in the text of Islam and positioned against an antagonistic West served as the guideline for Iran’s latest iteration of sovereignty.[3]

Current Expressions of Political Discontent

“We’re tired of Revolution.”[4]  In his 2008 lecture to the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Dr. Kenneth Pollack summarized Iranian’s feelings of discontentedness with the foregoing quote.  In his view, Iranian discontent is focused on the sheer idea of revolution – that concept which for so long has been associated with the very problems they are facing today.  In other words, the very conception of revolution got them to where they are now: what good will more revolution do?  This serves to explain the dissonance between Iran’s popular revolution and modern-day expressions of discontentedness – revolution is precisely that with which Iranians are discontent.  In this way, revolution is an inappropriate means for solving the problem of disaffection with the ruling establishment.  So too is the ballot box seen as an ineffective tool for implementing change – Amirpur writes, “The low turnout [in the February 2004 elections] also shows that the population is utterly frustrated and disillusioned as to their ability to influence politics through elections.”[5]

However the public’s difficulties don’t end at the question of means: Iranian political discontent is also frustrated by a question of ends.  Be it by revolution or some other mechanism, exactly what type of regime would replace the ruling establishment?  As outlined in the previous section, Iranian history is replete with various efforts at public administration.  Until 1979, nearly every other type of governance had been tried: military rule, rule by foreigners, secular rule, etc.  As Khomeini and the religious elite were taking power, direct Shi’a religious rule (i.e. rule by Iranians over Iranians) was virtually the only type of governance left to try.[6]  Thus, Iranians are today faced with the question of exactly what type of regime to replace Islamic rule with.  Historically speaking, the Iranian regimes have had troubles with popular legitimacy – be they due to Islam’s lack of clear leadership after Mohammed or due to an ethnic or linguistic disconnect between ruler and ruled.  Spooner summarizes this question well when he writes: “If there is to be a single central national authority, should it lie with strong men— sultans, shahs, presidents—or with God, to whose authority Muslims by definition submit?”[7]  Khomeini’s answer was to root his legitimacy in the velayat-e faqih (supreme interpretation of secular decisions to ensure conformity with Islam).  Since his death, however, the question of legitimacy has once again come up.

Thus, in order for Iran to yet again undergo regime change, and thereby quell its political discontent, the question of the next regime’s political legitimacy must first be answered.  In this way, one can understand the expression of political discontent in Iran as the frustration with not only the means of implementing change (neither revolution nor voting is seen as effective), but also the difficulty in determining exactly how to legitimize whatever that change would bring about.  For all of the disaffection felt by Iranians with the regime, until these pivotal problems of the means and ends for change are solved, the expression of discontent will remain in limbo between complicit participation with the regime and protest against it.

[1] Rouzbeh Parsi, “Introduction: Iran at a Critical Juncture,” European Union Institute for Security Studies, (Chaillot Papers, February 2012): 10-11.

[2] Roy Mottahedeh, The Mantle of the Prophet, (Oxford: Oneworld, 2000): 246.

[3] Brian Spooner, NELC 281 Lecture, University of Pennsylvania, March 19, 2012.

[4] Kenneth Pollack, “The Future of Iran,” Robert A. Fox Lectures on the Middle East (Foreign Policy Research Institute, September 16, 2008): <http://www.fpri.org/video/20080916.pollack.futureiran.wvx&gt;

[5] Katajun Amirpur, The future of Iran’s reform movement, European Union Institute for Security Studies, (Chaillot Papers, May 2006): 29-30.

[6] Brian Spooner, NELC 281 Lecture, University of Pennsylvania, March 12 2012.

[7] Brian Spooner, “The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran (Review Article),” Iranian Studies 37 no. 1 (March 2004): 113.