Iran, Revisited: 1979-2020

● Chloé Bernadaux


International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses developments in the Middle East and the Balkans. Chloé Bernadaux is an International Security specialist, focusing on the Middle Eastern studies and disarmament affairs. In her comprehensive analysis entitled “Iran, Revisited: 1979-2020” she is analysing 50 turbulent yearsin Iran’s history and the socio-political and socio-cultural chances Iran is facing today.   


Iran, Revisited: 1979-2020


“’No one governs innocently’ – de Beauvoir noted in her 1947’s The Ethics of Ambiguity. After a lot of hot air, the disillusioning epilogue of the popular McFB revolt and regimes changes all over the place is more firearms and less confidence residing in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, as well as a higher (moral and environmental, socio–economic and political, psychological and security) carbon-energy price everywhere else. As if the confrontational nostalgia, perpetuated by intense competition over finite resources, in lieu of a real, far-reaching policymaking has prevailed again. Caught in the middle of its indigenous incapability and the global blind obedience to fossil carbon addictions, and yet enveloped in just another trauma, the Arab world, and with it Iran Israel and the wider Middle East theatre, remains a hostage of a geopolitical and geo-economic chess-board mega drama.” (Bajrektarevic: 2)


“The MENA theatre is situated in one of the most fascinating locations of the world. It actually represents the only existing land corridor that connects 3 continents. Contributing some 6% to the total world population, its demographic weight is almost equal to that of the US (4,5%) and Russia (1,5%) combined. While the US and Russia are single countries, the MENA composite is a puzzle of several dozens of fragile pieces where religious, political, ideological, history-cultural, economic, social and territorial cleavages are entrenched, deep, wide and long. However, the MENA territory covers only 3% of the Earth’s land surface (in contrast to the US’ 6,5%, coverage and Russia’s 11,5%). Thus, with its high population density and strong demographic growth, this very young median population (on average 23–27 years old) dominated by juvenile, mainly unemployed or underemployed, but socially mobilized and often politically radicalized (angry) males, competes over finite and scarce resources, be they arable or settlers land, water and other essentials. Competition in this theatre, that has a lasting history of external domination or interference, is severe, multiple, unpredictable, and therefore it is fluid and unsettled on the existing or alternative socio-economic, ideological, cultural and politico-military models, access, directions and participatory base.” (Bajrektarevic: 4)


Within the MENA proper “Iran is a unique country that connects the Euro-Med/MENA with Central and South - well to the East – Asia, so as it solely bridges the two key Euro-Asian energy plateaus: the Gulf and Caspian. This gives Iran an absolutely pivotal geopolitical and geo-economic posture over the larger region – an opportunity but also an exposure! No wonder that the US physical presence in the Gulf represents a double threat to Iran – geopolitically and geo-economically. Nearly all US governments since the unexpected 1979 Shah’s fall, with the G.W. Bush administration being most vocal, have formally advocated a regime change in Teheran.”

The following lines are an attempt to revisit and rethink 50 turbulent years that brought about mixed reactions within its society and among its neighbours. 

Chapter 1:


What American and European scholarship on the Iranian Revolution has left out of the picture


The fall of the Shah as a result of peaceful demonstrations led by millions of Iranians in the country remains one of the most puzzling mysteries for social scientists. The establishment of the Iranian Republic independently from external armies’ aid, from the resort to armed struggle and unprecedented from any civil war, continues to be subjected to intense scholarly debate among Iranian and Western scholars alike. It is observable that the literature emerging immediately after the Revolution both in Iran and in the West mirrors the traditional historiography of social movements based on Big-men theories and institutions. This was illustrated by the massive focus around the personality of Khomeini as the leader of the Revolution, especially in the historiography published in Iran, called “Nehzat” or “the movement” (Sohrabi: 4). However, institutions and Big men such as Khomeini did not initiate this Revolution from below on their own. In this context, recent scholarship has intended to provide more sophisticated explanations of the Revolution based on economic, cultural and socio-political examinations.


These predominant scholarly explanations however often reflect Big-Theories in so far as they aim at identifying a structural pattern and reflect scholars’ anxiety around the necessity to categorize Iran within a recognizable model for prediction of future revolutions. Some other scholarship however has intended to explain the singularity of the Iranian case by identifying the peculiarities of Shi’a cultural revolutionism or resorting to similar culture-based accounts. However, each of these answers account for only one part of the Iranian puzzle and a “give and take effect” continues to dominate the historiography on the Iranian Revolution. In fact, due to the diversity of factual aspects, narratives and experiences of the Revolution, different layers of analysis must be identified in order to deliver a comprehensive account. For the purpose of this essay, I have identified the following layers of explanation: What was the motive for Iranians to take to the street? Where does the feeling of injustice stem from? (1); How was this feeling activated and what form of expression did it take? (2); How was solidarity created and articulated among Iranians? (3).

This set is not restrictive; however, it allows for a more precise understanding of what each of these scholarly explanations studied here aim at covering. This classification also remains fluid in so far as some explanations are closely intertwined, as observed throughout this essay. The first part of the analysis focuses on the explanations based on the narrative of the social breakdowns emerging during various periods of the Shah’s reign (I); while the following part gives increased attention to the role of religious values and the underlying role of the clergy, which both theoretically reflect the “social movement model” according to Misagh Parsa (II).

I contend that these two sets of explanations primarily aim at explaining the first two layers exposed above. However, scholarship has put less emphasis on the factors for solidarity and organization, which remain essential for a comprehensive understanding of the practical aspect of the Revolution from a network perspective (III).


  1. Scholarly accounts of “social breakdowns”A.The socio-economic transformations of the 1960s and 1970

Several observers such as Robert Looney have focused on the socio-economic transformations in Iran during the last two decades of the Shah’s regime. In this respect, two distinct orientations can be identified. A first strand of analysis focuses on the impact of the participation of Iran in a campaign for the rise of oil prices in 1972 and of the simultaneous inflation rate increase – which reached 25% in the late 1970s - on the living standard of many Iranians, who observed higher prices of living and intensified inequalities (Amanat: 619). Another strand of studies emphasizes the socio-economic impact of the modernizing policies of the Shah led in the framework of the White Revolution. In this respect, several studies have demonstrated that the land reform originally imposed to weaken the landed elite has negatively impacted poorer peasants, who were forced to migrate to the city for their survival. These agricultural policies caused the rise of a class of urban poors as well as the burgeoning of slums, which later proved to be a space attracting large support for the Revolution (Najmabadi: 213).

This explanation was powerful in order to account for the socio-economic origins for this feeling of injustice, however it fails to provide an understanding of how this feeling of injustice was activated. From a comparative perspective, many other oil-producing countries in the region observed a rise in the oil price with similar effects on the poorest stratas of the population with no revolution taking place (Kurzman: 85). Furthermore, there is no empirical evidence showing that the poor brought Khomeini into power; in contrast to the wide range of evidence pointing to the poor’s larger role in the post-revolutionary stage (Bayat: 39). In other words, the positionality of being poor and oppressed does not entail political or revolutionary action. In fact, I contend that socio-economic factors are meaningless in themselves if they are not tied to explanations focusing on the rise of solidarity networks and political actions for survival (Bayat: 42). On the one hand, the socio-economic transformations of the 1960s and 1970s are particularly relevant to account for the “awakening” of this feeling and perception of injustice among Iranians. On the other hand, these explanations fail to consider the role of the designation of whom is responsible for this injustice as well as the role of external forces in articulating these feelings of injustice.

As an illustration, an interesting comparison can be drawn with the US’ sanctions today. Since the bulk of the blame is put on the US instead of the Iranian government for the economic decline in the country experienced by Iranians, the regime does not collapse. This perspective points to the perception of a “money revolution” among scholars, which is based on the false assumption that economics is the sole factor that matters in society. Furthermore, it mirrors the similar American misperception practiced before the Revolution that investing money in the Shah was sufficient in order to guarantee the regime’s stability. This economic determinism is however problematic as it assumes rather unproblematically that social solidarity exists to take advantage of crisis conditions.


 B. The disjuncture between economic and political modernizations


Another scholarly explanation revolves around the fact that the economic modernization emerging with the reforms led by the Shah during the White Revolution did not translate into more political rights. While the development push of the Pahlavi state enabled the growth of the urban working and professional salaried classes, these have not entirely been absorbed by the state (Harris: 73). Even though these policies were directed towards their benefit, these groups consistently formulated public demands to the state during this period. In fact, these reforms created a heightened sense of expectations for political rights that did not come about.

This scholarship is hence particularly powerful in contradicting the “Rentier States Theory”. Instead of accepting this corporatist welfare regime and acting as co-opting forces, working and professional salaried classes consistently used social welfare programs as a foundation for further demands. This narrative thus puts great emphasis on the agency of social classes. In this framework, Harris’ account is enlightening in providing that the classical formula “no taxation without representation” is not ultimately reversible in showing that elite competition cannot win without popular mobilization. Furthermore, this explanation is relevant in explaining why the working and professional salaried classes conducted the first set of demonstrations in the wake of the Revolution. Furthermore, this account also contradicts modernization theory by pointing to confrontations between different groups of modernizers, highlighting the complexity of “modernization” instead of branding it as an abstract yardstick.


 C. The cultural divide between society and government


Another predominant scholarly explanation of the Revolution is the growing divide between society and government. To a large extent, this divide is attributed to the politics of cultural modernization led by the Shah, which was widely perceived among Iranians as an emulation of the West. In the 1960s and 1970s, many Iranian students were sent abroad; and secularization as well as Western cultural productions were largely promoted. In fact, foreign productions picturing the US as a land of opportunity dominated Iranian channels. Moreover, trends in music stemmed from the cosmopolitan forces of pop and rock music performed in Iranian cabarets and on television; with the state giving greater value to global music than traditional Persian music and denigrating traditional artists such as Farrokhzad as anti-modern (Siamdoust: 46).

Furthermore, the Shah’s top-down imposition of an unfamiliar environment in the countryside while implementing its welfare programs during the White Revolution is revealing of the cultural divide between state and society at this period. For instance, the obligation of the women teaching in the Literacy Corps to remove the veil illustrates the incapacity of the Shah’s central institutions to connect with Iranians’ everyday lives and beliefs (Harris: 72). These policies combined with the dire infrastructure in the country, in contrast to the massive elitist projects oriented towards enhancing the Shah’s prestige, participated to create a sense of dehumanization and alienation within society.

Furthermore, the economic disparity between US training personnel and their Iranian counterparts as well as the condescending attitude of the former to the latter added to this feeling of alienation, and participated to the evolving rhetoric on the US from depictions of a benevolent country to ones of the Great Satan (Amanat: 649). According to this scholarly explanation, these policies and discourses led to revisionist trends within society replacing the discourse on modernization with the one on “Gharbzadegi” or “Westoxification”, framed by the intellectual Jalal al-Ahmad (Amanat: 690). This concept shaped the nativist discourse on the return to an authentic culture, which is based on a new understanding of mysticism and Islamic philosophy within Persian culture to transcend Western corruption. Interestingly, this discourse is also illustrated by the dichotomy between the chaste body of Iranian culture and the foreign polluting agent (Amanat: 695), which focuses on cultural notions of “us” and “them” and operates the shift from backwardness to decadence. In this respect, the discourse on authenticity in the form of an idealized past aims at countering the cultural imperialism of the West violently imposed for political and economic domination (Najmabadi: 207).


While contradicting the discourse on modernity, this narrative draws on dependency-theory as it shows that Pahlavi policies were subservient to Iran’s alienation and dependence on the West. In this respect, an interesting aspect of this scholarly explanation its framing of the Revolution as an anticolonial struggle as well as asserting a historical continuity between the Islamic Revolution and the earlier national struggle that started with Mossadegh. As Najmabadi clearly puts it: “We are dealing with a new phenomenon that presumes a century-old attempt to come to terms with the West, first by emulating it and trying to catch up with it, and now by rejecting it and trying to eradicate all its effect.” (Najmabadi: 217). In this context, these top-led denigrating policies laid the ground for the resort to religion as a traditional element embedded within society in order to articulate grievances from below. In other words, if the state communicates that its society does not matter, that it is backwards, and a movement stemming from traditional elements already present within society is communicating that it matters; Iranians will tend to support this latter movement, which explains the rise of the clergy. In this respect, this scholarship was particularly successful in explaining the role of Islam as a political tool to frame demands for independence from the West, as well as in accounting for the role of intellectuals such as Ali Shariati in articulating the grievances of the people. More precisely than an explanation purely centered on socio-economic transformations, reasoning in terms of divide between state and society permits to assess how this feeling of injustice was activated and towards whom. 


In fact, if political conditions do not allow one to reach a certain socio-economic status for no reason other than corruption, a widespread sense of alienation among society can act as a potential motivator for popular mobilization. One possible drawback of this scholarship is that it fails to explain why Islamic resurgence did not happen sooner during Reza Shah's rulership and only at the end of the 1970s. In fact, until the summer of 1979, protests only attracted a few thousand Iranians (Kurzman: 32). In the context, it is false to describe the Islamic Revolution as a sole reaction to the modernizing measures of the 1960s and 1970s.


II. Explaining the peculiarities of Iran: the religious component within society


A. Shi’a revolutionarism


Some authors such as Theda Skocpol in her article Rentier State and Shi’a Islam in the Islamic Revolution have pointed to the role of the Shi’a tradition of revolutionism. This tradition is centered around the narrative of “Karbala” or martyrdom as the defining element of the Iranian identity since the Safavid era. This element is powerful in order to account for the cultural capital that was resorted to during the Revolution as well as the framing of nativist Islamic discourse by Ali Shariati for the intellectual articulation of the Revolution. In fact, Ali Shariati, with the creation of Hosseinieh Ershad, aimed at establishing a modern religious institution that would resort to Shi’a archetypes in order to articulate in religious-intellectual terms the motives and strategies of revolt against political oppressors (Amanat: 697). Particularly representative of the saliency of Shi’a revolutionism as cultural capital is the framing of Mustafa Khomeini’s death as a mirror to the martyrdom of Imam Hussain in 680 CE. The initiation of the forty day mourning cycles, which transformed into an instance of popular mobilization against the Shah, are in fact instructive of the importance of Shi’a traditions as relevant cultural capital in the context of the Revolution. The slogan “Everyday is Ashura; every land is Karbala”, sang during demonstrations in 1978, illustrates the role of symbolism for the emergence of popular mobilization.

However, a sole over-emphasis on the role of ideology, without contextualizing it within wider network dynamics, can be viewed as a form of Orientalism representing Iranians as mere fanatics. Furthermore, this explanation obstructs from the fact that the turn towards Islam did not come from Islamists, but secular leftist intellectuals, who were branding this new “home-grown” Islam (Kurzman: 76), which reinforces the validity of Shi’ism as cultural capital primarily.


B. The independence of the clergy


A refined focus on religious components of the Iranian society focuses on the historical independence of the clergy as an opportunity for the Revolution. Under the Qajars, an accepted task division was established between the clergy and the bureaucracy: the clergy ran the religious schools, administered the legal affairs of Muslims and its financial structure was strictly independent (Najmabadi: 208). While the clergy remained disillusioned with the Constitutional Revolution and politically inactive for the first half of the 20th century, the politics of the Shah after 1953 Coup against Mossadegh - then perceived as a national hero - brought about the recomposition of clerical elements who assumed active ideological leadership. In fact, their failure to oppose would undermine their position as guardians of morality within society (Najmabadi: 209). In this context, Khomeini with his book Kashf al-Asrar assumed a unique role in articulating clerical opposition to the Shah’s reforms. Another aspect of independence ought also to be stressed: while the Shah increasingly oriented his cultural policies towards the Left, he left enough room for the religious circles to organize and to relay messages of dissent articulated in a religious manner (Amanat: 698).


This scholarly explanation formulates a more contextualized account for the singularity and complexity of the Islamic character of the Revolution. Furthermore, it explains the essential aspect of why the clergy was the major actor in the Revolution. However, this “organizational” explanation leaves out of the frame the fact that the mosque network was not controlled by the revolutionaries until winter 1978 and that religious circles were constantly infiltrated by SAVAK agents, which reduced their ability to conduct the Revolution on their own (Kurzman: 40). Furthermore, a methodological fallacy is observable as in this view the clergy is presumed to have homogeneous views. Moreover, the salience of the clergy's role is demonstrated according to this narrative in a backwards reasoning and explains the process from the outcome. This narrative of the Islamic Revolution hence misses a great amount of stages and factors such as the participation of a wide range of additional groups within society to the Revolution, from the Leftists to the Jews and women. However, this piece of scholarship remains a piece of the puzzle by pointing to the role of mosque networks in building solidarity for the formulation of collective claims.


III. The hidden piece of the puzzle in predominant scholarly explanations: religion as “fulcrum” in a “networked” society


Thinking in terms of networks has often been left out of the frame in the study of the Iranian Revolution. Networks, described as frameworks in which people within a given society can socialize, constitute and hold the potentiality to build solidarity around the revolutionary movement. The tight solidarity nexus between the bazaar and religious circles exemplifies the centrality of networks for popular mobilization in the context of the Revolution. In fact, the death of Mustafa Khomeini on October 23rd, 1977 triggered the emergence of a new form of alliance between religious circles, the bazaar and university students against the Pahlavi regime.

Furthermore, on January 8th, 1978, the protest of the main bazaar in Qom in response to the defamation of Khomeini illustrates the emergence of a strong solidarity network as a basis for popular mobilization and organization around Khomeini’s leadership (Ghamari-Tabrizi: 38). The bazaar, the clergy, white-collar employees and workers started in fact to mobilize together and to create a revolutionary atmosphere in the fall of 1977 and united around a common ground in order to articulate dissatisfaction against the state (Parsa).

Furthermore, a network analysis permits to give a clearer view on the central role of the clergy. In fact, since religious circles penetrated the lives of many Iranians with the daily mosque prayers and processions and maintained many personal ties with bazaar members, these possessed a privileged position to take the leadership of the Revolution with overwhelming support. In contrast, leftist claims could not translate into organization within society because leftists often came from aristocratic backgrounds and lacked the privileged connection that religious circles enjoyed with the people. This network perspective is in fact particularly effective in assessing what has been left out of the frame in common scholarly explanations, namely how the ends and means of various groups created popular mobilization.


Summing up the chapter


To conclude, scholarly explanations can be classified into two approaches. The first approach focuses on the social breakdowns of the pre-revolutionary period, and is relevant in explaining how the economic, social and cultural policies of the Shah resulted in a deepened divide between government and society. The second approach emphasizes the role of religious components within traditional society in order to account for the peculiarities of the Iranian case. Each of these accounts and categorizations reveals a set of anxieties surrounding the uniqueness of the Revolution as well as concerns about how to predict future revolutions. They fail to provide an all-encompassing explanation of the revolution, however each contribute one piece of the puzzle by uncovering the multiple aspects of the Revolution.

By questioning the validity of these scholarly explanations, Kurzman attempts to formulate an anti-explanation by looking at the role of ambiguity and contingencies as well as the instability of individual preferences (Kurzman: 125). However, I believe that individual preferences are intrinsically tied to structural factors and are worth being articulated to shape a more precise understanding of the Revolution. In this respect, current scholarship on the subject ought to gain in comprehensiveness by using the network paradigm, which is particularly powerful in shaping a more fluid view of institutions and people within society, refuting their immobility. 

Chapter II:


The evolution of a revolutionary movement into a revolutionary state in the Iranian context


Following the overthrow of the Shah and an overwhelming support in a national referendum, the new radical regime soon established control over the territory of Iran, and gradually moved towards consolidation of power under the leadership of Khomeini. While institutionalizing the achievements of the Revolution with the creation of a new government apparatus remained the most pressing preoccupation in the immediate post-revolutionary state, it took several more steps for the new regime to form its long-term legitimacy - based on deeper cultural and social bases.


By declaring Iran an “Islamic Republic” and effectively implementing the Sharia, the Revolution created a sharp contrast with the previous Pahlavi regime. The new regime operated a complete shift in institutions, values and powerholders and, in this respect, created new forms of economic, social, human and cultural capitals. However, strictly dividing the pre- and post- revolutionary periods obstructs continuities, as well as the fact that social phenomena existed prior to the Revolution and determined power in the post-revolutionary phase.


The state’s creation of new forms of capital remains in constant interaction with social dynamics, sometimes deeply entrenched from the early times of the Pahlavi dynasty. In this respect, analyzing the intersections between power and social phenomena remains the center of my approach. In other words, the extent to which the revolutionary state drew into existing cultural and social tropes in order to frame and reinforce its own power remains highly significant for my aim to understand the transition from a revolutionary moment to a revolutionary state.


In the immediate post-revolutionary phase, the new regime faced powerful challenges and threats stemming from internal contenders of power – wishing to influence the terms of the state and to hold a share of power – and from external enemies, ranging from Western opponents to the new Islamic Republic to Iraq, who invaded the country as early as September 1980. Here it is to analyze the diverse internal and external challenges posed to the transition to a Revolutionary state (I). In fact, one of the key underlying question for the new regime remained throughout the post-revolutionary period the following: how do we sustain the state independent form the problematic of whether other countries deem us credible or not?


Secondly it is to highlight the opportunities and strategies used by the regime in order to tackle these challenges – through the consolidation of its own power and the creation of new forms of capitals - based on Bourdieu’s theory. And finally, to explore the new challenges to the revolutionary state which arise in the aftermath of the war and focused on the renewed strategies and policies created by the regime in order to adapt and respond to these new issues.


Important also is to observe that most scholarly accounts on the consolidation of a revolutionary state have claimed to explain why the transition operated successfully. I argue however that precisely knowing that the Revolutionary state has materialized leads scholars to give more importance to certain aspects than Iranians on the ground in that time period. Through these explanatory frameworks, scholars determine what is deemed to be looked at through thinking inversely from the outcome of the revolutionary state back to its factors. Such a narrow focus however leaves out of the frame some crucial elements ranging from the calculations, motives and thoughts of the people on the ground. I hence aim to undertake a more bottom-up approach here, by attempting to enlarge the frames, examine everyday acts of life ranging from the cultural, artistic and psychological realms of different segments of the population and explore state-society interactions. 



 I. Challenges to the formation of a revolutionary State following the revolutionary movement

For the purpose of this paper, posing the question of the internal and external challenges – both being often intertwined - remains essential in order to understand the strategies framed by the new regime. Furthermore, these diverse challenges point to both the particularities of the Iranian Revolution – as to its internal, regional and international contexts –, as well as to its commonalities with other transitions to a revolutionary state.


 A. Internal challenges or “intra-systemic” challenges


First, it is crucial to bear in mind that different voices with diverse ideas and political affiliations conducted the Revolution alongside Khomeini’s followers. While these last ones have depicted the Revolution as “Islamic”, this adjective remains inaccurate and fails to describe the motivations of the Iranians who participated to the Revolution. This Revolution was in fact highly “ideologically inclusive” (Abrahamian: 12) – encompassing leftists, Marxist Islamists, constitutionalists, etc. Most prominently, the Mujahedin-e Khalq was able to encompass a wide diversity of people through the combination of Marxism and Shia mythical figures in its ideology. In this context, the first challenge remains to successfully contain these rival forces in order to preserve the regime.


Furthermore, another challenge common to all revolutionary state lies in the necessity to create a foundational story, which is key to any society. In Iran, the creation of this foundational story remains highly complex. In fact, the Revolution per se cannot represent this foundational narrative, as too many different groups with diverse visions for the revolutionary state were involved.


Another crucial challenge arises from the Turkoman and Kurdish uprisings on Iranian territory. These People perceived the recent shift in power and the Revolution as an opportunity for self-determination, a movement that remained largely supported by leftist movements throughout Iran. Israelis also contributed to the uprisings from the Iraqi side. In this context, these uprisings represented heavy blows on the state in the early days of its creation and reveals the early legitimacy issues of the new regime.


Furthermore, common to most new revolutionary states is the necessity to fulfill its diverse promises formulated towards different social classes. It ranges from the demands of the lower classes for the promised welfare measures to the growing demands of the expanding educated middle class for greater social mobility. Particularly challenging in this context was the growing need of the successive Iranian administrations to improve its relations with the US for the development of its large gas reserves and the enhancement of its technology (Abrahamian: 16). Particularly challenging to the new revolutionary state were also the mounting demands of women – who largely contributed to the Revolution - for growing rights in the post-revolutionary phase.


B. External or “anti-systemic” challenges


It is indisputable that the new Islamic Republic is born in a particularly hostile international climate. Opposed to the establishment of the Republic. On the one hand, fearing that it would lose its interests in the region, the US spent considerable efforts in backing Khomeini’s opponents. On the other hand, the Iraqi attack in September 1980 on Iranian air force followed by an immediate ground invasion in the region of Khuzestan, represented also a serious military challenge for the new Republic, only a few months after its declaration.

Isolated on the international scene and alienated from its previous backers, the new Iranian regime had hence to resort to a wide range of subtle and sophisticated strategies in order to consolidate itself. The hostage crisis represents the start of a misinformation campaign led by multiple foreign actors as attempts to sabotage the regime. The various rounds of sanctions enforced by the international community have represented a enormous challenge to the Republic, to which it responded by recalibrating its economy independent from Western economies and promoting industrialization beyond oil sectors.


 II. Opportunities and strategies for state consolidation


Several strategies were formulated by the state to respond to the challenges enunciated above, sometimes concomitantly to certain presenting opportunities.


 A. State consolidation through the coercive containment of intra-systemic threats to the regime


One of the traditional and dominant account of why the Islamic Republic has survived points to the terror exerted by the clerical regime - through its numerous executions, imprisonments as well as through the power consolidation of the Revolutionary Guards. First, the new Islamic regime widely resorted to prisons and large waves of incarcerations as a way to contain dissent voices such as the MEK. Furthermore, the new state also excluded individuals deemed as “unsuitable” such as persons with mental deficiencies (Talebi: 150-183). This is particularly illustrative in the willingness of a state to implement conformity and homogeneity within its society. In this respect, one observes that looking at the ways in which a state deals with the marginalized as well as to who is being excluded from society and reduced to “bare life” (Agamben) is highly relevant in order to understand this state, sometimes more than solely observing material aspects such as its institutional set-up of this state.


 The Revolutionary Guards, an organization first constituted in the context of the Turkoman and Kurdish Uprisings, enforced these harsh interrogations – and sometimes executions - against leftists and other power contenders. The IRGC heavily draws on the Basij existing prior to the formation of the Islamic Republic, paramilitary forces constituted during the Revolution by Khomeini which builds on the mosque network and indigenous ways of organizing such as Komitehs. In this respect, the intersection of social phenomena and power is observable to the extent that power became reliant on existing social structures. Emerging out of a vacuum, the IRGC first targeted external threats such as in the context of the Iraq-Iran war, where it became the most efficient force at organizing and mobilizing popular forces. However, it soon mobilized against internal threats and became a powerful paramilitary force, tasked to protect the Revolution from within. In this context, the Revolutionary Guards became one of the most powerful organizations in the newly established Republic up until today.


Crucial is also to observe the current overemphasis in the literature on the Revolution on the coercive means used to sustain the revolutionary movement. However, this sole focus is highly misleading since violence under the Islamic Republic largely weakened rather than strengthened the Republic (Abrahamian: 11). Furthermore, this view vehiculated the wrong perception that fear and terror can actually sustain a revolutionary state on their own. In fact, although the Iranian state resorted to a wide range of repressive means , especially in its early stages, it is not totalitarian; That means that other strategies enabled the state to demobilize its population and deal with external threats. 


B. The emergence of economic and social populism: a response to the regime’s early promises


In the post-revolutionary phase, economic and social populism acted as means of channeling the revolutionary energy in constructive ways and increase the number of stakeholders within the state (Abrahamian: 11). Up until today, welfare policies also permit to funnel intra-elite competition. In fact, while inheriting the corporate organization from the Pahlavi monarchy, the new Islamic Republic also created a dual welfare system – representing a sharp contrast.


First, economic populism has permitted the “transformation of general aspirations into specific inscribed promises” (Abrahamian: 12). The numerous welfare policies - in the forms of accessible healthcare and free education allowed for the expansion of the regime’s social base to poorer classes, and thus largely strengthened the regime. Populist policies also oriented towards urban poors through the expansion of the safety net and the provision of subsidized bread, electricity and heat in the outskirts of Tehran and other cities (Abrahamian: 15). Specifically, the program Jehad-e Sazandegi (or “construction Jihad”) implemented the construction of roads and electrification of villages, which widely expanded the safety net to the rural population.


The program positively impacted the standard of living of rural Iranians and provided new opportunities for social mobilities. However, it is arguable that these populist policies have however caused more social stratification since the degree to which individual households could benefit to the Jehad Program was proportional to the size of their land, and thus dependent on their socio-economic status (Hooglund: 38). This hence represented a major drawback for the regime, since these new grievances and feelings of injustice eventually contributed to the formation of a new class consciousness among small landowners in the countryside. Furthermore, interesting is also the wider political consequence of this rural-focused program as these enabled televisions – and thus national politics – to make their entry into villagers’ households (Hooglund: 37). 


In this context, the introduction of televisions brought about the standardization of language centered around the Teherani accent which permitted to define what it means to be a modern Iranian citizen. However, this increasing connection of rural areas to Teheran also laid bare the social differences and the creation of an elite class partly based on language, which brought about real resentment among these rural classes. These shared grievances have led to the victory of Ahmadinejad, a new unknown politician who promised to put an end to the privileges of the clergy, according to some observers (Hooglund: 37).


Moreover, healthcare policies are another example of institutional state-building oriented towards the Iranian population. This expansion of the health network to areas formerly neglected under the Shah regime and as to refugees throughout the country, as well as the creation of a health safety net deeply embedded within Iranian society, were key in responding to the increase of birthrate in Iran after the war (Harris: 118). Furthermore, these healthcare policies as well as the literacy campaign promoted by the new Republic were a key element in the process through which the Iranian Revolution and the state becomes embedded within society. In other words, these policies embedded within a process of the narrowing gap between rural and urban populations “nationalized Iranian society, equalizing the aspirations across the country for upward mobility and a higher standard of living” (Harris: 143).


Furthermore, these populist policies act in Iran as means of channeling elite conflicts between the conservatives – or economic populists such as Ahmadinejad, and Reformists – or “liberals” such as Rohani, and hence shaped the political landscape throughout the country in the decades following the Islamic Revolution up until today (Harris: 173).


However, I argue that the sole focus on economic and social populism is highly misleading as it vehiculates the perception that money is the sole element that contributed to the formation and consolidation of the new state. One should in fact not underestimate the importance of ideational elements in the transition from a revolutionary movement to a revolutionary state.


C. The creation of a national identity through new forms of social and cultural capitals


The literature on revolutionary movements has pointed to the necessity for the revolutionary state to formulate a new foundational story in order to foster its legitimacy. This legitimacy however cannot be based on the same paradigm as the old one. In this respect, the new state aims at creating new forms of economic, social, cultural and symbolic capitals, which determine interactions within members of society as well as between the state and society. This recreation proves essential in the overall effort of the state to transform its citizenry, so that it does turn against the regime. Beyond a pure concentration on economic capital – as it is so prominent in today’s literature on state-building -, I put emphasis here on social, cultural and symbolic capitals, which are particularly essential in the creation of a new shared identity, and for this reason, highly intertwined. 


First, social capital determines membership in societies, as well as configures the modalities of its relations, networks and alliances. Particularly relevant in the recreation of social capital in the new Islamic Republic is the creation of a new legal framework redefining questions of gender and sexuality within society. Regarding women, many legal changes took place in the name of Islam, ranging to the abrogation of the Family Protection Law to the obligation for women to wear the veil. This position on women clarifies the state’s view on inter-gender relations within society, as well as informs its top-down approach to impose a new official culture. Another example of the reformulation of social capital in the new republic is the widespread exclusion of Leftists to university. This policy clearly establishes who is entitled to membership within the new intellectual society in Iran and who is excluded. Moreover, the new categorization of the population, legally promoted by the new Constitution, used the terms “khodi” and “gheir khodi, based on indigenous kinship networks – and hence embedded within society -,  aimed at creating new norms based on an insider/outsider binary, which is key in all revolutionary state.


Intertwined with the reconfiguration of relations within society, an informal and formal cultural revolution led by the state have determined the formation of new forms of cultural capital, understood in terms of the creation of new cultural goods. These new informal and formal cultural policies aimed at reframing what contemporary Iranian culture is and encompasses. First, the state formulated an informal and formal cultural policy based on the principle of Gharbzadegi, aimed at creating the new ideal Iranian citizen opposed to the West. In this context, the state highly encouraged men to keep their facial hair as both a sign of piety and opposition to the Western infidels. Furthermore, in the immediate post-revolutionary phase and during the war with Iraq, the government would only allow movies falling within the paradigm of “holy defense cinema”, hence bolstering the government’s view on the war (Abrahamian: 15).


Moreover, the new constitution participated to the creation of a new identity for the new state: it solidified a political entity that draws both on French and Belgian Republican models as well as a new form of Islamic politics. The constitution, through the establishment of the title of Veleh Faqih, hence shaped the deep-entrenched Islamic character of the new state.


A subtle analysis of the state’s cultural policies in the post-revolutionary period ought to distinguish “signature” cultural issues determined by the new state from more flexible issues (Farhi: 2). In the immediate post-revolutionary phase, the state actively resorted to cultural policies promoted by the regime’s grassroots supporters in order to crush their opponents. Khomeini’s early statement “we did not make the Revolution for cheap melons, we made it for Islam” is instructive of the role of Islam in the new state’s cultural policies, particularly its signature issues, as a politically motivating tool to motivate its initial supporters and sideline its opponents. In this framework, certain cultural issues backed by the regime’s grassroots supporters such as female veiling and wider gender interactions as well as notions of cultural assault acted as the main cultural statements of the new state’s Islamic identity. In this respect, these harsh cultural policies aimed at enforcing moral values and reaffirming the identity of the Revolutionary state.


As Farhi brilliantly puts it: “As signature issues, the identity of the Islamic Republic has become tied up with their continued enforcement. Accommodating them or even ignoring them on a regular basis brings forth the question of whether the Islamic Republic has remained true to itself” (Farhi: 12). However, these inflexible and top-down imposed signature issues have sometimes resulted into widespread dissent among the population, and particularly among women who opposed the wearing of hijabs, promoted female voices in music (Siamdoust) and questioned the state’s morality around the necessity to dress appropriately. However, the widespread view among Western media according to which the willingness of women to wear the veil is the barometer of the success of the Revolution proves highly exaggerated. In fact, more recently, the state has increasingly vacillated between ignoring improper veiling and selectively punishing, as these issues are increasingly used as “ammunition in the struggle for political control”, and thus vehiculates elites’ contentions for power, as observable through the divergent views of the reformists and conservatives on state intervention in artistic production. (Farhi: 12).


However, the regime’s stance on some more complicated political issues however ranging from the right’s to birth control and certain artistic productions proved more complex, and to a certain extent more flexible, observable through the imprecise character of “Islamic principles” used to define the ideological component of the state’s cultural policies. Particularly illustrative of this flexibility is the ways in which the state has negotiated the production of music in continuous interaction with society. On the one hand, the ideological and cultural power of state institutions dealing with the production of music such as IRIB, Ershad and Howzeh, as well as the necessity of Khomeini’s approval for music dissemination, clearly shows that the Revolution was not only a social but also a cultural Revolution (Siamdoust: 90).


On the other hand, the debate around the permissibility of music within the state’s inner circles is illustrative of this flexibility, which stems to some extent from the tension between the state’s cultural policy’s goal to enforce moral values and its dependence on the reaction of society – and most particularly artists - in the face of cultural restrictions. In this regard, the state’s cultural policies prove also highly pragmatic for the consolidation of the state and intends to successfully regulate the tension between formulating a strong Islamic identity and tempering societal dissent.


D. Patriotic consolidation based on the creation of an external threat


the hostage crisis and the Iraq-Iran war are critical events, which have allowed Khomeini and his power center to redirect popular mobilization towards foreign enemies, and thus monopolize state power in order to repress its opponents and reinforce the populist message of Khomeini (Abrahamian: 12). The hostage crisis enabled the consolidation of Khomeini’s own power, even if he did not orchestrate it. In fact, while he crushed the first attempt led by Leftists to take over the Embassy, Khomeini saw the hostage crisis led by young Islamists as politically expedient for himself. In this perspective, some scholars have argued that the hostage taking had less to do with Islam and more with internal struggles in post-revolutionary Iran (Najmabadi: 202).


In fact, while the hostage crisis is important for explaining the diplomatic isolation of Iran, it remains even more so for understanding the creation of popular framework against the US and the West. In this context, the exclusion of certain personalities from the Iranian political landscape opposed to Khomeini such as Bani Sadr – convinced of the possibility of coexisting with the West – is not surprising. 


The impact of the Iraq-Iran however is even more essential than the hostage crisis for operating the transition from the revolutionary movement to revolutionary state as it allowed for the creation of a powerful foundational story, particularly efficient in consolidating power. In fact, this “holy defense war” acted as the marker of a glorified Iranian Islamic identity. In this context, mobilization for the war acted as an instrument for maintaining popular support for the new revolutionary state. Both symbolic groundwork as well as material elements permitted the formation of a war narrative, which in turn allowed for the safeguard of the Islamic Republic.


From a symbolic viewpoint, the hegemonic war narrative promoted by the state was the idea of a “sacred war”. Shia values such as the quest for martyrdom were particularly instrumental in mobilizing fighters for the war as well as granting legitimacy to the war efforts, and in this respect to crush domestic opposition. Hence, in this respect, the war with Iraq enabled through its claim to fight anti-systemic forces, the containment of intra-systemic conflicts. The symbolic aspect of the war remained effective beyond the war front through the broadcast on national televisions of a powerful “narrative of conquest” (Farhi: 104).


Furthermore, the narrative of “sacred war” became intertwined with a narrative of a defensive war against an external enemy. In this context, the popular depiction of the war by Iranians as World War III results from the heightened perception of the international community’s aim to weaken and delegitimize the Revolution, as the US and its allies remained eager to prove that Iran also relied on chemical weapons, also following UN investigation proving the contrary. In this hostile international context, Iranians continued fighting because they perceived that the entire world was against them and that the enemy was too strong. Therefore, they believed that if they did not fight, Iran would not have survived. Hence, the war with Iraq remained perceived as highly existential for both the regime and its population, and this uncertainty from the Iranian side that the war would actually result into the survival of the regime and the state is crucial for understanding the length of the fight.


A seemingly paradoxical concomitant narrative aimed at propagating of signs of victory in the war against Iraq such as the successful occupation of the Iraqi oil port of Faw in 1986 (Farhi: 106) in order to ensure the continuity of mobilization for the war and of the revolutionary state.


 Hence, not only did the state resorted to the war itself in order to generate a new foundational story, but also instrumentalized the sacrifice of the war generation as both a moral revitalization centered around Islamic values, and for the benefit of the anti-reform discourse. In fact, anti-reform forces within the regime have increasingly resorted to the narrative of the “war hero” in order to crush reformists’ attempts to reform the harsh application of the Sharia in Iran. However, whereas the war proved essential for both the formation of a foundational story and state consolidation, the negative impact of the war for in the long-term deserves some attention as the continuation of fighting across the Iraqi border caused widespread urban destruction and a strong financial drain, and occasioned heightened opposition in the last years of the war among Iranians (Abrahamian: 11).


III. The new challenges to the sustainability of the revolutionary state arising in the aftermath of the war


The post-war period was particularly challenging for the new Islamic Republic as it produced a situation in which all the previous external threats have been erased. This allowed for the forces that participated in the Revolution to re-organize. Furthermore, several concomitant challenges have appeared such as the post-war baby boom period and the increased number of women going into the workplace, the transformations of urban spaces with the rising internal migration from the south to Teheran, etc.


A. Generational clash emerging from the state’s narrativization of the war


The narrative of war generated heightened debate within Iran, coming mostly from veterans who aim at finding meaning to their sacrifice and formulate their definition of what they fought for and what should the state defend today. In this framework, divisions between veterans - who aim to go back to Khomeini’s vision, restrain social freedoms and enforce cultural expressions - and the younger generation and several veterans - who are willing to grant the social freedoms their kids seek - are observable as a first layer of division.


Beyond this generational clash, two other layers of societal tensions around this narrativization of the war are notable. First, the narrative has moved after the war from the “war hero” to “the victims” that need to be taken care of. However, in the light of the increasing corruption of the system, institutions such as Bonyad-e Shahid or Satad-e Azadegan - primarily aimed at providing services to war veterans - failed at fulfilling this purpose, and instead engaged in profitable economic activities (Farhi: 108). This participated to heightened discontent with the evolution of the Revolutionary state and their alienation. Second, the widespread resentment towards veterans’ family members, who have acquired facilitated access to competitive universities, have also created a another set of tensions between those families who actively contributed to the war and those who did not.

Hence, I argue in this context that the necessity of a war narrative that connect all society and tackle its psychological underpinnings among the Iranian population remains primordial, particularly in a time when the “legacy of the sacred war in defense of Iran continues to divide rather than unite despite its genuinely popular roots.” (Farhi: 114). 


B. Beyond the war: Reformist ideas arising from the new generations


In the post-Khomeini period, the generations born in the 80s increasingly voiced their wish for regime openings. Despite the forceful imposition of Islamic values, I argue that the new radical regime has mainly aimed towards the loosening of the state’s grip over culture over the last decades in order to respond to the realities of the ground – ranging from the increasing numbers of women arrested for improper veiling to the protests of the “mothers of martyrs” who could not obtain financial support without the fraternal grandparents approval. The state has constantly adapted to these challenges streaming from the core of Iranian society, which accounts for the sustainability and survival of the regime.


Young generations have also increasingly been involved in challenging the state’s top-down imposition of narratives such as “Westoxification”, articulated as a reinforcement of Shia revolutionary values, and have instead promoted their authentic “Persian” identity and emphasizing Zoroastrian identity (Khosravi: 64),  as a way to show resistance to the state and rearticulate a new form of modernity (Khosravi: 91-121).


Up until today, these younger generations have remained willing to listen to the Supreme leader’s call to “vote if you believe in a free Iran”, the turnout in elections – around 70% in each parliamentary elections since the Revolution - remaining fairly high in Iran. Today, however, with the overall failure of the JCPOA and the growing feeling that the reformist movement is doomed to fail, could possible lead to a boycott of the new elections and the weakening of the revolutionary state for the first significant time since the Revolution.

In sum, the state’s preoccupations of the post-war period have fallen within the following problematic: “How could any of these elite groups lead this younger, literate, and more politicized population toward its own revolutionary vision?” (Harris: 143).


Summing up the chapter


To conclude, the revolutionary state has created a strongly institutionalized system. Throughout the post-revolutionary phase, the state was particularly successful in shaping a powerful foundational story – as the defensive holy war against Iraq. It also recreated new forms of symbolic, social, economic and cultural capitals through its various cultural and welfare policies and legal changes in order to assert its legitimacy and transform its citizenry. All these policies enabled the Islamic Republic to remain strong and resilient to internal opposition and external attacks. In this context, it comes with no surprise that the new state was able to outmaneuver its enemies attempts (such as Saudi Arabia) to dismantle the regime while reducing its military budget – which remains at 4% of the overall budget against 18% during the Shah’s reign (Abrahamian: 13).

However, the state did not operate in a vacuum and I argue that the state top-down policies also generated a bottom-up response from wide segments of society ranging from women, minorities, educated and rural voices within society. Considering the role of culture and arts in vehiculating dissent and opposing a state-promoted narrative through subtle metaphors remains central to a precise understanding of the formation of a new state and, most prominently, its diverse interactions with society.


Chapter III:


Socio-cultural and political changes in post-revolutionary Iran: The manifestation of “politics and culture with a difference”


Most current US’ accounts on domestic Iranian politics have essential revolved around Iranian political class, the ruling clergy or rivalries among competing stakeholders. Even in the wake of 2009, most US’ journalistic accounts have almost exclusively focused on the potential of reform from above and socio-political fissures within the state. This myopia to societal dynamics reveals a limited conception of the state and politics. In fact, very few in-depth studies aiming at analyzing political dynamics in Iran have actually looked at cultural and social developments. However, the Iranian case shows that even in an authoritarian state communities and individuals with different interests have constantly invented new ways to navigate through state and societal structures in a bid to push for reforms. Any narrative excluding these top-down dynamics fails to acknowledge that the Iranian society historically has moved way more forward than the state. Different communities and activists have constantly been involved in shaping political, social and cultural debates in Iran.


Looking at bottom-up cultural and social phenomena opens a wide range of questions relating to the analytical categories traditionally used by academia to describe Iranian politics: “the political, “the state”, and “culture”. By taking the process of state formation as main point of departure, I aim at opposing the reductionist understanding of the political as the exclusionary realm of the state or the regime. Instead, my assumption lies in the fact that a set of societal interactions form policy. In this perspective, any state constantly engages in process of becoming. In this respective, unpacking what defines the state, the political and culture requires looking at the different micro local displays leading to policy formulation. In this regard, how different segments within society understand policies and engage with them lies at the heart of the policy formation in Iran.

In this segment, a set of different case studies ranging from gender, race, religion, and geography, will be explored in order to comprehensively explore these changes. All these matters pertain in some ways or another to identity politics in Iran, which involve a multitude of actors within society. A specific focus on identity politics leads us to ask what elements constitute the social and political makeup of the “social collective”? Who are those who remain excluded from this collective?


Societal dynamics do not operate in isolation from state structures and constantly engage with state-imposed policies and narratives. Throughout the years since the Revolution, the Iranian state shaped narratives of what defines itself and instrumentalized the war with Iraq as a powerful foundational narrative. Essential to consider here is the role this war played in the continuous process of state formation up until today. In fact, the state must today engage with the dilemma of an entire veteran generation willing to have a say in Iranian policies and put large demands on the state.

Historicizing and tracing the emergence of “an anti-secular, anti-nationalist and anti-foreign” (Najmabadi: 34) in the first years after the Revolution represents the first step of my approach to unveil the state’s strategies to consolidate power and explain the legacy of anti-statism in Iran. In fact, by declaring Iran an “Islamic Republic” and effectively implementing the Sharia, the Revolution created a sharp contrast with the previous Pahlavi regime. The new regime operated a complete shift in institutions, values and power holders and, in this respect, created new forms of economic, social, human and cultural capitals. However, strictly dividing the pre- and post-revolutionary periods obstructs continuities, as well as the changes unfolding within the post-revolutionary phase itself.


In other words, the revolutionary state constantly interacts with past and present frameworks of modernity, nationalism, secularism and gender in order to frame its own power. I argue that understanding these interactions with past and present frameworks remains highly significant for my aim to understand the consolidation of an “anti-secular, anti-nationalist and anti-foreign Islam” as well as the socio-political and socio-cultural changes that unfolded in the years after the Revolution.


After identifying the inconsistencies of the state as the origin of the increasing void between state and society throughout the post-revolutionary era (I), I aim at discussing the emergence of a new form of dissident politics in Iran epitomized by the reformist movement (II). Lastly, I consider the impact of the 2009 movement and recent developments in increasing the “sacred void between the state and the people”.


While looking at these different interactions between state and society, I also put particular emphasis on the historicization of categories such as modernity, nationalism and secularism; crucial for understanding the contemporary socio-political and socio-cultural changes in Iran. I argue that changes in the ways in which the Iranian state interacted with frameworks of modernity, nationalism, secularism and gender since the Pahlavi dynasty remains highly relevant in order to understand the socio-political and socio-cultural changes unfolding today.


I. Historicizing the formation and consolidation of an anti-secular, anti-nationalist and anti-foreign


The literature on revolutionary movements has pointed to the necessity for the revolutionary state to formulate a new foundational story in order to foster its legitimacy. This legitimacy however cannot be based on the same paradigm as the old one. In this respect, the new state aims at creating new forms of economic, social, cultural and symbolic capitals, which determine interactions within members of society as well as between the state and society. Reinvigorating a new form of Islam, as anti-secular, anti-nationalist and anti-foreign, remains at the very basis of the creation of the new states. In this respect, the state’s attempts to create new forms of social and cultural capitals has revolved around the promotion of this new form of Islam.


The new revolutionary state aimed at establishing new linkages between nationalism, secularism, Islam and gender politics. I argue that these linkages must be historicized in order to understand the emergence of an anti-secular, anti-nationalist and anti-foreign Islam.


In the early days of the new Republic, nationalist and Islamist discourses have framed the state’s politics of modernity. These discourses aimed at “iranianising” Shia Islam and emerged as a response to the previous negative state-imposed narrative on Islam as backward and “anti-modern” (Najmabadi: 40). In fact, I argue that one cannot fully grasp this new understanding of modernity by the new revolutionary state without putting it in perspective with the historical process leading to these policies and most specifically, the previous politics of modernity conducted by the Shah.


In fact, during the Pahlavi era, the state-led discourse on modernity conflated with the desire to emulate the West as precondition to modernity and positive development. Islam instead represented tradition and an “anti-modern” trend. In other words, the Pahlavi state aimed at shaping a discourse on nationalism revolving around secularism, while expelling Schism “onto the beyond” in order to produce modernity (Najmabadi: 40). In this respect, the state’s top-down promotion of women rights as well as its ban on the chador in 1936 became markers of secularism, creating new linkages between feminism and modernity.


Since the 1930s onwards, this discourse promoted by the modernist camp within the Pahlavi state has aimed at combining nationalism with both secularism and modernity through the rejection of Islam. This marks a turning point in the increased void between the state and society.


In fact, these state-imposed narratives based on the distinction between modern and backwardness have excluded a wide range of the Iranian (religious) population and have led to revisionist trends within society replacing the discourse on modernization with the one on “Gharbzadegi” or “Westoxification”, framed by the intellectual Jalal al-Ahmad (Amanat: 690). By the 1950s, Islamism became a powerful mode of antistate politics (Najmabadi: 34).


In fact, in a reactionary movement, the nativist discourse adopted by the new revolutionary state drew upon the Shah’s framing of modernity and nationalism and resorted to the same frameworks and linkages used by the Shah, while altering their meaning. In other words, I argue that the revolutionary state largely emerged as an opposition to the Shah’s linkages, and in this respect, to the anti-statism unfolding under the Shah.


In this perspective, the new revolutionary state promoted a new discourse on nationalism revolving around the notion of an authentic culture as well as a new understanding of mysticism and Islamic philosophy within Persian culture as a way to transcend the Shah and Western corruption.


Particularly relevant in the new state’s desire to draw a clear oppositional line with the Shah’s previous policies is the formation of an informal and formal cultural policy centered around the principle of Gharbzadegi. These cultural policies aimed at creating the new ideal Iranian citizen opposed to the West, and in the same dynamic, create an anti-foreign Islam at its basis. In this context, the state highly encouraged men to keep their facial hair as both a sign of piety and opposition to the Western infidels.


Particularly relevant in the recreation of social capital in the new Islamic Republic born out of the opposition to the Shah’s narratives is the creation of a new legal framework redefining questions of gender and sexuality within society. Regarding women, many legal changes took place in the name of Islam, ranging to the abrogation of the Family Protection Law to the obligation for women to wear the veil. This position on women clarifies the state’s view on inter-gender relations within society, as well as informs its top-down approach to impose a new official culture revolving around an anti-secular Islam.


In this framework, certain “signature” cultural issues, in opposition to more flexible issues”, aiming at drawing a clear line with the Shah’s regime while promotion the new state’s Islamic identity, such as female veiling and wider gender interactions. As Farhi brilliantly puts it: “As signature issues, the identity of the Islamic Republic has become tied up with their continued enforcement. Accommodating them or even ignoring them on a regular basis brings forth the question of whether the Islamic Republic has remained true to itself” (Farhi: 12).


Moreover, the new constitution participated to the creation of a new identity for the new state: it solidified a political entity that draws both on French and Belgian Republican models as well as a new form of Islamic politics. The Constitution, through the establishment of the title of Veleh Faqih, hence shaped the deep-entrenched Islamic and anti-secular character of the new state.


To sum up, it is to argue that the Islamization of the state as well as the consolidation of an anti-secular and antiforeign Islam hinges upon the previous Shah’s discourses, excluding Islam out of the spectrum of modernity. This historicization also unveils the legacy of anti-statism penetrating the Iranian society up until today. However, these inflexible and top-down imposed conception of Islam and most particularly itspromotion of signature issues have sometimes resulted into widespread dissent among the population, and particularly among women who opposed the wearing of hijabs, promoted female voices in music (Siamdoust: 225) and questioned the state’s morality around the necessity to dress appropriately.


Broader contestations over the state top down discourses on Iranian identity have emerged and increased since the early days of the Republic. Some authors have argued these ongoing societal contestations over the linkages operated by the new revolutionary state mainly stems from the fact that the Islamic Republic came out of a mass popular revolution and is hence inherently an “hybridized phenomenon” (Najmabadi: 29). I would add to this view that the persisting inconsistencies of the state fueled these contestations and have in turn influenced the ways in which socio-cultural and socio-political changes have occurred in post-revolutionary Iran.


II. Inconsistencies of the state and the post-Islamic turn

The numerous inconsistencies of the state represent ongoing challenges to the state almost since its emergence. One can unveil inconsistencies at two levels. First, there are several conflicts between the state’s policies and socio-cultural dynamics. Second, the state’s ideology sometimes has conflicted with the state’s ideology and originally imposed narratives themselves.

First, at the heart of the first set of contradictions lies in the state’s narrative on nationalism demanding the “assimilation of differences of religion, language, ethnicity, gender and sexuality into a unitary notion of Indianness” (Najmabadi: 42). However, as Najmabadi brilliantly unveils, this new kind of Iranianess promoted by the state became inherently tied to “Muslimness, Persiannes, masculinity and heterosexuality” (Najmabadi: 42). Social and cultural dynamics emerging from society have sought to configure Indianness and shape a new relationship between difference and citizenship.


For instance, the post-Islamic turn led by societal dynamics on the ground have aimed at representing Islam and Iran as separate domains and reconfiguration the top-down imposed linkages operated by the state (Bayat: 98). In this respect, the post-Islamic turn has intended to promote a new view of Islam as an individual faith, congruent with the individual’s freedom of choice. Bayat showed the extent to which the new post-Islamic turn emerged as a response to the contradictions of the state’s narratives on what it means to be Iranian by resorting to a comparison between Iran and Egypt. Whereas Egypt’s Islamic movement – supported by an increasingly pious culture - failed to bring about an Islamic revolution in Iran (Bayat: 99), no Islamic social movement precedented the Islamic Revolution in Iran. This difference accounts for the increasing rejection of the state-led Islamization from above in Iran today. Instructive of this post-Islamic turn is the evidence that the Iranian regime is today dealing with a population for whom the hijab and other signature issues are not relevant anymore and who are willing to push those “red lines” established by the state.


The post-Islamic turn is today associated with the reformists in Iran, who have aimed through the path of electoral politics to promote a new understanding of the state in relation to Islam.


However, it is worth pointing out that this reformist movement is not a hidden form of anti-Islamism. In fact, many religious intellectuals since the 1990s have participated to the reformist movement and formulated Islamic arguments against state policies. Numerous religious scholars have intended to push against the notion of Veleh Faqi, conflating Islam with the Republic, by resorting to Islamic theology instead of political arguments. Religious intellectuals assumed a key role in this respect as they granted some level of legitimacy to the movement. The post-Islamic turn within Iranian politics gave rise to a new wave of intellectuals who intended to reconcile Islam with democracy and human rights and promote a new idea of modernity (Bayat: 96).


The second type of inconsistencies lies in the incongruence between state’s ideology and formed narratives with its new policies. The state’s narrativization of the war with Iraq perfectly illustrates this incongruence and unveils numerous cracks in the ideology of the regime.


The narrativization of the war by the state triggered a wave of discontent with the evolution of the Revolutionary state. In fact, two layers of societal tensions around this narrativization of the war are notable. First, the narrative has moved after the war from the “war hero” to “the victims” that need to be taken care of. However, in the light of the increasing corruption of the system, institutions such as Bonyad-e Shahid or Satad-e Azadegan - primarily aimed at providing services to these “victimized” war veterans - failed at fulfilling this purpose, and instead engaged in profitable economic activities (Farhi: 108).


Second and most importantly, the legacy of the war with Iraq has created a large amount of divisions among Iranian society instead of unifying, lying at the core of the state’s contradictions of his narrative around the war. In fact, the war with Iraq instead of reducing dissent and creating consensus around social and cultural policies, has created an entire generations of veterans who are willing to have a say in the future direction of the Islamic Republic and aim at finding meaning to their sacrifice. These veterans intend to formulate their definition of what they fought for and what should the state defend today. Important in this framework is to bear in mind veterans lead today the most important pro-peace movement in Iran, who are willing to never let a war happen again. This veteran’s posture goes against state’s promotion of the war as its foundational narrative and top-down narrativization of the war, which has led to an increased void between the state and those veterans.


III. The emergence of new dissident politics


Socio-political and socio-cultural developments are not the unique function of state policy and electoral politics. Hence, analyzing the social dynamics emerging from society would be more relevant in order to account for the contemporary developments in Iranian society. In this respect, political micro-displays play an indirect yet crucial role in challenging the top-down imposition of state-narrative in Iran.


First, different social movements have intended to push for social and cultural changes by exploiting the different fractures and loopholes within the state. In this respect, they have aimed at reframing the different categories leading to eligibility established by the state through constant engagement with state structures themselves.

In this perspective, women and youth have played a crucial role in pushing for these categories and their political micro-displays have succeeded to some extent in bringing about some cultural and social targeted changes (Bayat: 58).

Since the birth of the new Islamic Republic, Women have in fact faced several legal and social restrictions, while secular feminists remained silenced by the dominant political and cultural climate promoted by the state.


In fact, by positing women at the center of its cultural Revolution, the new Islamic Republic entered into direct contestation with feminism. However, this is precisely this outright rejection of feminism that gave way to “a hybrid dynamic of outdoing and embracing feminism” (Najmabadi: 31), congruent with the emergence of flourishing intellectual and cultural production by women. In fact, the centrality of the “women question” to the Islamist political discourse of the new Republic laid the ground for the emergence of a new sociability among women, as women “as culture” came to occupy a crucial position in formatting women’s solidarity.


Logically, the new configurations of Islam, nationalism and modernity – as shown in the first part – represent challenges to women, who must engage in interpretative endeavors in order to promote their goals. For instance, the newspapers Zanan and Huquq-I Zanan – previously located on the conservative side of the political spectrum – have carried out these endeavors and ensured the decentralization of reinterpretation from the domain of the clergy. These media created a productive space for dialogue and alliances among feminists beyond the secular-religious divisionary line (Osanloo: 74). In doing so, they directly engaged with state’s categories and aimed at tackling the new establishment’s interest in defining what is Islamic and what is not. In fact, since its emergence, the new state intents to cultivate these divides by engaging in a self-created global culture war in which the fate of the Revolution is at stake (Najmabadi: 32).


By engaging with the state’s neat categories, women have ensured the enlargement of the discursive framework in order to include both secular and Muslim feminists. By the end of the 1990s, feminists – both secular and Muslims – have started to “meddle back together” and increased their solidarity networks. For instance, while women’s strategy did not aim at touching upon the hijab issue, it targeted instead inheritance and custody laws in order to create solidarity among all women. In this framework, women incorporate a social movement on their own (Bayat: 80).


An example of this solidarity are local micro-displays such as the volunteer women health workers (Hoodfar: 56). In fact, more than 100.000 women workers in Iran successfully introduced family planning programs and established a powerful rural health network while promoting the use of contraceptives in the countryside. This women mobilization came to embody the “largest (…) public mobilization in the modern history of Iran” (Hoodfar: 57). While the Ministry of Health intended to keep the movement apolitical, the volunteers’ network created new ways to redefine their mandate by going around state’s structures.


By mobilizing their neighborhood to demand municipal services and publicize their grievances and establishing a dialogue with the state, these volunteer women have created new means of activism and successfully provided access to national resources and redirected them in order to meet their demands. Whereas they did not engage directly with the regime’s ideology on gender, they nevertheless redefined what means to be a citizen in Iran today and acted as a model for other. Furthermore, by gaining more agency and creating a model for a “female citizen”, these volunteers participated in redefining family structures and their role in both the private and public spheres constitution society (Hoodfar: 60). Hence, this pattern of activism has intended democratize Iranian society from the inside out and played a central role in socio-political and socio-cultural changes.


The Iranian Youth was also crucial in challenging the state’s categories and promoting social changes. According to Bayat, the Youth forms a social “lifestyle” movement “through their preoccupation with cultural production” (Bayat: 65). However, I argue against Bayat’s framing of the youth as a social movement as this is subject to large inconsistencies. In fact, defining the youth’s lifestyle movement as a social movement assumes that the positionality of being young necessarily implies political mobilization. However, I also defend the view that one should not underestimate the challenges posed by the youth for the state. The main challenge that have emerged together with the generational differences among the Iranian population is the following: In what lies the legitimacy of the new state when a large portion of the society does not remember or did not experienced the Revolution.


Furthermore, one should also acknowledge that most new cultural products stems from the youth, ranging from graffiti to memes and music which act as local displays to the state. An example of the crucial importance of micro-displays among the youth is the decision of Hichkas, the main rapper in Iran, to come out completely against the revolutionary state in the late 2000s (Siamdoust: 235). Such open oppositions, combined with more discrete and indirect micro-displays, incorporate the new form of dissident politics in Iran.


Furthermore, the growing role of arts and cultural actors in dissident politics shows that political action is not the exclusive domain of politics and music is potentially more efficient in advancing cultural and social changes and ideas than a fatwa from the Supreme Leader. In fact, only looking at the role of state elites is not indicative of where the debate within society located itself. Usually, society has proven way ahead of elected officials in advancing the debate and conversation around societal issues and have engaged in the social and cultural realms to overcome the limitations posed by the state.


Such open oppositions, combined with more discrete and indirect micro-displays, incorporate the new form of dissident politics in Iran.


Furthermore, the youth also largely carried out some demands towards the state such as the necessity to move away from the reliance on oil and to open the country to Western foreign investment. In general, the youth was the main social category that oriented the reformists’ movement demands towards economic liberalization (.).


In this respect, young generations have also increasingly been involved in challenging the state’s top-down imposition of narratives such as “Westoxification”, articulated as a reinforcement of Shia revolutionary values, and have instead promoted their authentic “Persian” identity and emphasizing Zoroastrian identity (Khosravi: 64), as a way to show resistance to the state and rearticulate a new form of modernity (Khosravi: 91-121). In sum, the state’s preoccupations of the post-war period have fallen within the following problematic: “How could any of these elite groups lead this younger, literate, and more politicized population toward its own revolutionary vision?” (Harris: 143).


Furthermore, some other groups of activists such as transgenders have also successfully instrumentalized state structures in order to advance their goals (Najmabadi: 533-551). In this perspective, transgender activists have strategically activated a mechanism of deliberation and discussion between several state structures, medical institutions, the clergy and the psychological community in order to widen the grey zone around transgender. In this respect, they have also successfully exploited the growing bureaucratization and the fractures within the state in order to advance their demands, while strictly distinguishing themselves from the forbidden category of “homosexuality”.


This example leads us to rethink the ways in which the state has created categories and some activists have navigated or acted upon them. Activists often have a strong interest in not clarifying and complexifying their categories. This strategy to not play by the game of the state allows for the blending of identities and the formation of a wider space for action.


Many disagreements have emerged since the birth of the Islamic Republic and up until recently, electoral policies played a large role in channeling these discontents. Up until today, these younger generations have remained willing to listen to the Supreme leader’s call to “vote if you believe in a free Iran”, the turnout in elections – around 70% in each parliamentary election since the Revolution - remaining fairly high in Iran. The Iranian state’s methods, until recently, remained very different from the Syrian state’s and other totalitarian regimes’ consisting in repressing any popular movement or acts of dissent. However, the recent crackdown of protests in Iran unveils a new turn in Iranian politics today. I argue here that the 2009 movement - characterizing the shift from electoral to street politics -laid the ground for the recent evolutions unfolding today.


 IV. 2009 as a watershed: the transition from electoral to street politics


The Green Movement of 2009 following the elections marks a powerful change in Iranian politics at it marks the shift from electoral to mass street politics the deepening of the void between state and society. After the re-election of Ahmadinejad, a large portion of the Iranian population marched down the main street of Tehran and other cities from three days. People throughout Iran recorded and disseminated these powerful images of popular mobilization against the Republic. In fact, the 2009 movement coincided with the advent of internet and social media. When the movement started, internet penetration reached 70% in Iran across all sectors of society. In this perspective, when the state shut down the press, the movement and the broader Iranian population re-directed its strategy towards the internet. In fact, over 100 dailies became updated on the Internet by the diaspora or within Iran. Websites started using telegram channels, and reformist leaders as well as activists increasingly resorted to social media accounts such as Facebook or the website for instance to write opinion pieces and express dissent. From 2009 onwards, internet became the main medium through which activists conducted political micro-displays.


In this context, a powerful example of dissident micro-displays includes the emergence of citizen journalism. This culminated with the emergence of the “hashtag”, and its powerful role as an aggregation tool to both set off protests and gain attention internationally.


While the Green movement remained mainly a middle-class movement at first, the shutdown of the Internet triggered for the first time the convergence of middle class and poor classes’ demands, who have increased solidarity towards each other. Furthermore, this created a situation where local displays gained more weight, increasing even further the void between the state and the people.


2009 marks also the start of the start of the state’s increased intervention in the cyber-realm in order to suppress activism. While before 2009 the Iranian state remained largely behind in terms of social media as well as unable to create an “intranet”, it progressively enhanced its capacities in filtering internet speeds. In fact, because the infiltration of the virus Stuxnet launched by the US and Israel and the Green movement emerged at the same time, the state linked these two separate events and hence sought to develop a cyber arm in order to surveil activists.


In fact, the regime has developed a complex attitude in the face of this new dissident politics. For instance, both the sanctions and the war have created an environment conducive to the deep entrenchment of the state and the government and increased clampdown. The exile of multiple movements’ leaders such as the major figures of the feminist movements in Iran since 2009 illustrates the increasing void between state and society. The recent protests expose the discontent and angriness with the regime, however there is no movement yet tying their anger together, while some armed resistance is observable. However, the resort to repressive means marks an exponential increase in the void between the state and its citizen.


Other state strategies to tackle these new dissident politics have also included co-opting artists, similarly to the Shah’s previous policies, such as the examples of Hila Sedighi with its song “it’s green again” and Amir Tataloo “Energy Hasteei” testify (Siamdoust; 271).




To conclude, thinking about the socio-political and socio-cultural chances in Iran led us to rethink our understanding on the three common categories of the “political”, “nationalism” and “Islam”.


First, both local micro-displays and more formal dynamics such as the Reformist movement have intended to reframe “Islam” within liberal politics and detach it from its initial “anti-secular, anti-foreign” character (Najmabadi: 34), as the post-Islamic turn testifies.


Second, in a top-down movement, some portions of the Iranian people have actively intended to re-imagine the relationship between citizenship and difference and hence to create a new type of nationalism. To do so, they have constantly engaged with the meanings and intertwinements between secularism, Islam and gender politics.


Third, the new dissident politics emerging in Iran have consisted in strategies aiming at renegotiating indirectly with the state the meanings of some of the categories. The various local displays initiated by various social movements, where the youth and women played the most prominent role, were particularly masterful in going around state policies and changing their terms, while advancing their goals. Furthermore, the emergence of street politics and bottom-up acts of everyday life sometimes only indirectly challenging state politics have proved that the “political” is not the exclusive realm of electoral politics and direct engagement with the state.


In this perspective, the recent statement of Mousavi comparing the Supreme Leader with the last Shah testifies of the legacy of anti-statism penetrating Iranian society at large.


In this context, we can witness today the growth of protest in the post-reform phase of the post-revolutionary state and conversations mainly revolve around the failure of reform. Are we in the stage of Najmabadi’s pre-revolution in Iran, where the population does not engage with the state at all and is willing to initiate a revolutionary movement all over again?


However, comparisons with 1978 remain largely short-sighted as no unified group with a common ideology and strategy has emerged yet. In this context, the concomitance between the increasing popular anger and the lack of ideas bears some danger, as other groups can take advantage of this situation and turn it into chaos.



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About the author:

Chloé Bernadaux is an International Security specialist (Sciences Po Paris), focusingon the Middle Eastern studies and disarmament affairs. She was previously a researcher with the Arab Institute for Women of the Lebanese-American University in Beirut, as well as a political columnist at the Lebanese newspaper, L’Orient Le Jour.


Ljubljana, 20 February 2020