The Genealogy of Protest in Iran: Lessons from History
by Pouya Alimagham
Iran has a long and rich history of protest that spans more than a century, yet the recent nationwide protests that erupted in late December, 2017 and continued into January are part of a history that is distinct from its predecessors. Properly situating Iran’s latest round of contentious politics within the context of Iranian history helps us understand not only the difference between Iran’s revolutionary past and present, but also where Iran stands today vis-à-vis the role of the United States.
The start of Iran’s modern history of protest activity is often attributed to the Tobacco Revolt of 1890-2. Successive shahs of the Qajar dynasty had continuously granted foreign powers rights over the Iranian economy, and the proverbial “last straw” was the deeply unpopular tobacco concession. The British monopoly over the production, sale, and export of Iranian tobacco as a result of the concession sparked a popular revolt and the concession’s cancellation. Yet, these monarchs continued to sell off the Iranian economy for grants and loans—funds they in turn spent in Europe during their lavish getaways. Thus, the coalition that gave birth to the Tobacco Revolt eventually morphed into a revolutionary movement in the early 20th century that aimed to establish a constitution in order to limit the power of such treasonous shahs. The imperial powers of the day, Great Britain and Czarist Russia, refused to relent and plotted to subvert the new order. The Constitutional Revolution ultimately succumbed to a Russian bombardment of the Iranian parliament in 1908, a joint-British and Russian intervention in 1911, and the British-orchestrated coup in 1921 in which a colonel of the Cossack Brigade, Reza Khan, took power and later crowned himself Reza Shah Pahlavi—the founder of the short-lived Pahlavi dynasty.
As a result, for Iranians, the issue of the day was foreign powers strangling Iran’s economy by way of pliant and beholden Iranian kings—though Reza Shah ultimately proved to be an unruly client and was deposed by the Allied-invasion of Iran in 1941. At the time, Iran shared a border with the U.S.S.R., and the Allies used the Persian Gulf country as a supply route in support of the Soviet war effort after the Nazi invasion.
The Allied-occupation inadvertently created the space for political leaders to assert Iran’s dormant constitution. Between 1941 and 1953, Iran’s political life blossomed, eventually facilitating the rise of Muhammad Mossadeq—the democratically-elected nationalist prime minister. Like his predecessors in the Tobacco Revolt (1890-2) and the Constitution Revolution (1905-11), Mossadeq, an internationally-trained lawyer, saw Iran’s political independence as intimately tied to its economic sovereignty—one could not exist without the other. He was elected on a platform to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, which the British controlled through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC).
After the British unsuccessfully tried to overthrow Mossadeq, they turned to the U.S. for assistance. At the time, America enjoyed much goodwill in the eyes of Iranian citizens and leaders, who did not expect the United States to subvert what was essentially Iran’s struggle for independence from Britain. After all, the U.S. had fought a revolutionary war with Britain to obtain its own independence, and Iranians believed America would be sympathetic to their struggle for independence.
The U.S. decision under President Dwight D. Eisenhower to overthrow Mossadeq after a two-year stalemate with the British shocked Iranians and effectively positioned America as the new imperial power in Iran. 25 years later, after a century of struggle against imperialism and its local monarchs, Iranians launched a protracted revolutionary movement early in 1978 that culminated in the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the seizure of the U.S. embassy—the same embassy that spearheaded the operation that overthrew Mossadeq. While the United States suffered a catastrophic defeat, the events of 1979 did not go unanswered as the U.S. backed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran.
The Iranian Revolution spurred tectonic shifts in the geopolitics of the region. The emergence of Islamism as a “Third Way” during the bipolarity of the Cold War ensured that the shockwaves of the revolution went beyond Iran’s borders. The revolution also changed the calculus of social movement activity in Iran. Before 1979, popular movements took aim at British, Russian, and American imperialism and their local agents, the shahs. After the Iranian Revolution, however, when Iran finally obtained its independence, protesters focused on Iran’s post-independence leadership—a leadership untainted by foreign power meddling and intrigue.
From the student-led protests of 1999 and 2003, to the historic post-election uprising in 2009—the Green Movement—and the recent protests in the winter of 2017-8, the issues pertaining to modern Iran largely revolve around domestic issues. To name but a few of those issues, demonstrators have mobilized to protest corruption, the long-arm of a seemingly ubiquitous state and human rights violations, legal sexism, controlled elections either through a rigorous vetting process, institutional democratic weakness in the face of a hardline power structure, or outright fraud—which protesters alleged in 2009—and an enfeebled economy that benefits those close to the government while many more live economically insecure lives. To be sure, while continuous U.S. sanctions—even after the historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015 (or “the Iran nuclear agreement”)—as well as the high risk that foreign investors face investing in Iran’s economy during the Trump era have certainly hurt the Iranian economy, for now protesters have continued to direct their anger not at the U.S. but their own government.
Foreign power meddling through overt and covert interventions—most consequentially Mossadeq’s overthrow that effectively ended Iran’s experiment with democratic governance for a quarter century—has long retarded Iran’s political evolution, sparking several uprisings. Since 1979, however, protest activity has mainly focused on domestic matters. While the Iranian government unjustly portrays such dissent as a part of a foreign conspiracy that aims to subvert Iran’s independence—a sentiment that understandably resonates with many Iranians given the very real history of foreign subversion—the struggle for good governance continues.
The United States would be wise to heed the lessons of history and let Iranians determine their own fate as any further intervention—whether soft or hard—could easily derail Iran’s organic political evolution in unforeseen ways. Soft intervention by way of presidential statements in Washington or at the United Nations in support of dissent would enable the Iranian government to cast its dissidents as part of an American plot. Any hard military intervention would provoke a nationalist backlash that would sideline calls for change from within.
The Middle East is full of tumult, and Iranians affecting peaceful and piecemeal change from below constitutes a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak political landscape of war and counter-revolution.
About the Author
Pouya Alimagham is a historian of the modern Middle East at MIT's Department of History, and is the author of the forthcoming book, Contesting the Iranian Revolution: The Green Uprisings (Cambridge University Press).