Three issues stand out when discussing Iran’s future: revolution, regime change and reform. US President Donald Trump’s volte face offering to speak with Iran suggests that the first two options are not likely.
For a sound assessment of each trajectory, there is the need for theoretical and empirical synergy. In relation to the first option, there is a cavalier disregard for facts. To the chagrin of conspiracy theorists, classical theories of revolution posit that social revolutions are not manufactured. As early as the 19th century, Wendell Phillips emphasised that, “Revolutions are not made; they come.” The outbreak of a revolution is actually rather formulaic, requiring several sine qua non“uniformities” to create the conditions for a “spontaneous” eruption.
Furthermore, as Theda Skocpol indicated in her study of the last “great revolution” in Iran in 1979, mass social movements have to contend with the state’s instruments of repression. That is, the security apparatus has to be weakened by a structural breakdown before collective action can succeed.
This can explain why the nationwide protests in Iran in 2009, and later in 2017, were stifled. Even with external support from the Iranian diaspora, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged, or with US “assistance”, to use the word thrown haphazardly around by Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi, a revolutionary rupture is unlikely.
Even more unlikely is the prospect of regime change through “democracy promotion” campaigns, especially one endorsed by the Trump administration. Decertification of the nuclear deal, the Muslim ban, support for the traitorous People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), the war-mongering and threats of draconian sanctions do not make the US a trustworthy ally. The most recent casualty of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal is Iran’s iconic carpet industry, with potentially 50 per cent of its weavers being rendered unemployed.
The Islamic Republic, de facto, has endured a state of war since its inception. Iran has seen a tumultuous revolutionary uprising with a chaotic aftermath. Before entering its Thermidorian phase (the convalescence phase of a revolution), it saw a cultural revolution with its attendant social constraints, a traumatic eight-year war against Iraq in which its soldiers were victims of chemical warfare, and ostracisation as a sanctioned and embargoed pariah.
If the regime hasn’t collapsed yet, then it probably won’t with declarations of solidarity with the Iranian people. As Hamid Dabashi explains, since Alexander the Great’s invasion in 330 BC, “Iranians detest foreign interventions in their homeland.” Indeed, Iranians have consistently fought for their rights and political preferences, in the words of Dabashi, “on their own terms.”
There is a school of thought that holds that regime change threats are merely a tactic to coerce the regime into changing its behaviour. This is plausible; certainly, the Trump administration must be aware that it lacks the cultural and intellectual resources for the mammoth task of garnering enough support “on the ground” to overthrow the juggernaut of the Islamic Republic. The declared US principle of democracy promotion has been vitiated by it dubious alliances and misadventures in the region, eroding its credibility as a self-appointed champion of human rights.
With revolution and regime change off the table, what are the prospects for reform? Is the reform movement entirely dead, as Alireza Nader maintains?
In Iran, there is a permanent undercurrent of reform – in a rudderless drift – that is kept alive through a complex state-society dialectic. While the Iranian regime has an implicit intent to pave its individual developmental path (Sonderweg), the Iranian people push for reforms that reflect the type of modernity they envisage; in other words, a modernity navigated “from below”. For example, the decision to allow women into football stadiums may not have been a priority for the regime, but this discriminatory measure was negotiated over time through (an albeit arduous) dialectic between state and society.
“Reform” was enshrined in the watershed 2015 nuclear accord. Iran’s official, revolutionary discourse eschews compromises with the west. The deal, caught in the middle of factional wrangling, could have been vetoed by the Supreme Leader of the Iranian Revolution (his constitutional title), Ali Khamenei, but it wasn’t. Indeed, the nuclear accord symbolised the triumph of realism and pragmatism over exhausted, anti-west revolutionary zeal. However, Trump’s blithe decertification of the deal snuffed out its diplomatic and historic purport.
Iran’s small but significant policy changes have gone largely unnoticed in Western media. The fact that there is no Twitter hashtag for Iranian reform and a plethora of hashtags for regime change is a testament that the regime’s initiatives, as small as they may be, are buried in the avalanche of anti-regime histrionics. In January this year, for example, following the nationwide protests throughout Iran in the preceding month, the hard-line Iranian judiciary initiated reform of drug trafficking law by suspending the execution of 5,000 inmates. In April, parliament passed an amendment (still to go through a second round) which, according to Hassan Norouzi, a spokesman for the parliamentary judicial committee, could commute the sentences of many of the 5,000 people on death row for drug offences.
The country recently witnessed a milestone for minority rights. On 21 July, the Zoroastrian Yazd city councillor Sepanta Niknam was reinstated in his post after a 9-month suspension. According to new legislation passed by the Expediency Council (a body handpicked by the conservative Supreme Leader), religious minorities – Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians – are now eligible to run in municipal elections. The bill overrides the Guardian Council’s rule that a non-Muslim cannot be a member of a body that makes decisions in Muslim-majority constituencies.
There is an ongoing debate over compulsory hijab in the car; some women are refusing to wear a head-covering while driving, sparking a nationwide debate over what is considered to be the private and public domain. The Iranian judiciary and the police force insist that the interior of a car is public space. President Hassan Rouhani has argued that people’s private space should be respected, arguing that the job of the police is not to administer Islam. The debate is not limited to reformists. Abolfazl Najafi Tehrani, a cleric based in the Iranian capital, tweeted: “People’s cars, like people’s houses, are their property and a private space and infringing upon this space will disturb people’s moral security and will harm women’s trust with the police.”
Indications of change include more progressive attitudes towards women. Iran Air, the country’s national airline, has for the first time appointed a female CEO, Farzaneh Sharafbafi. Other progressive measures can be seen in the way that the regime perceives alcohol addiction; any alcohol use is strictly forbidden by religious law. The government is addressing addiction as a public health crisis rather than simply an issue of morality or legality. In 2015, the Ministry of Health announced that it would be opening 150 alcohol rehabilitation outpatient facilities in the country.
Reform would not only address the undoubted shortcomings of post-revolutionary Iranian society, but a declared intent to support Iranian reform without threatening the country with regime charge or war could also have positive knock-on effects by mitigating Iran’s state of insecurity, which feeds into its regional calculus. The so-called “axis of resistance”, for example, is largely designed to ensure perpetuation of the regime and to allay its sense of strategic solitude.
To encourage Iran’s prospects for progressive reforms, the international community would have to transcend the logic of engagement it has relied on for four decades, by changing perspective and the all or nothing, black or white, thinking. The Iranian revolution did not occur in a vacuum, and judgements are made too easily on the basis of a de-contextualised absolutism of principles which fails to engage with social realities.
Iran’s future ultimately affects the future of all of humanity. A non-invasive “evolutionary democratic” approach may well allow Iran to break out from its impasse in international relations, and to overcome the stasis in domestic affairs.