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Forty Years after the 1979 Revolution, Islamism Is Exhausting Itself As A Legitimizing Force For The Islamic Republic Of Iran

By Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar

April 3, 2019

Demonstrators burn a picture of President Trump during a protest last May in response to his decision to pull out of the international nuclear deal and renew sanctions.

Forty years after the 1979 revolution, Islamism is exhausting itself as a legitimizing force for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Studies sponsored by the Iranian government show that resentment toward the state’s religious symbols is at an all-time high.

According to the research arm of the Iranian parliament, around 70 percent of Iranian women do not strictly follow the official diktats for wearing a veil. Anticlerical sentiments have turned violent. Regardless of their ties to the government, clerics are routinely attacked and stabbed in the streets by angry anti-regime individuals.

Iran is responding by cautiously downplaying Islamism and emphasizing nationalism and foreign threats to win over disgruntled citizens. Iran’s leaders acknowledged the societal shift away from Islamism by making unprecedented references to nationalism and showing their determination to incorporate patriotic sentiments into the state ideology during the 40th anniversary celebrations of the revolution in February.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly appealed to Iranians to back the government, even if they do not endorse its Islamist ideology, for the sake of their country and for their own security.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which was established to preserve the Islamic Republic and the ideals of the 1979 revolution, now portrays itself as the guardian of the nation and the symbol of Iranian power against foreign aggression. Images of the ancient Persepolis ruins and references to the pre-Islamic Persian past have become omnipresent in the state-controlled media.

The change in government strategy came as Iranians demonstrated a new yearning for nationalism, challenging the self-proclaimed religious political system. Impromptu grass-roots gatherings at the Tomb of Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire known for his tolerance toward conquered nations and other religions, surprised observers and prompted crackdowns by security forces.

Iranian leadership’s anti-Americanism is increasingly at odds with the Iranian people’s long-held desire for an end to their international isolation. People have openly rallied against the regime’s use of religion, anti-Americanism and its support of the Syrian government and proxy groups at the expense of their well-being. During countrywide protests in 2018, many Iranians shouted, “Let go of Syria, think about us!”

Popular pressure also played an important role in getting Iran to sign the 2015 nuclear deal. Iranians hoped that the deal would be a step toward forcing the regime to further open up to the world. In his book “National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy,” President Hassan Rouhani acknowledges that the leadership paid close attention to the government’s classified public surveys before making critical decisions with regard to the nuclear program.

Iran’s supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards commanders made no secret about their reluctance to accept the deal and what could follow. In his campaign for re-election in 2017, Mr. Rouhani promised that after securing the nuclear deal, he would resolve other outstanding issues, implying establishing relations with the United States.

The election of Donald Trump, followed by his withdrawal from the nuclear deal and renewed American sanctions against Iran, has brought Mr. Rouhani’s reformist momentum to a halt. Instead, a sense of betrayal by the United States and of a threat to the country’s territorial integrity appears to be emerging among Iranians.

Iranian hard-liners have sensed the beginning of a change in the popular mood. Two weeks ago, Kayhan, a daily newspaper known for its close ties to the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards, declared “The End of the Western Illusion” as “the greatest achievement” of the last Persian year, which ended on March 20. Iranian elites who once galvanized society and received votes with the promise of better relations with the United States now simply repeat the angry anti-American rhetoric of their conservative rivals.

These days, Javad Zarif, Iran’s once-smiling foreign minister and the chief nuclear negotiator, sounds more like the former hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even Ali Akbar Salehi, the M.I.T.-educated head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and nuclear negotiator, recently said that everyone from the proponents to the opponents of the regime “and from the revolutionaries to the anti-revolutionaries have come to believe that the United States is our enemy.”

In taking away Iran’s nuclear leverage, reimposing the sanctions and heavily arming its regional rivals, the United States has intensified anxieties about national security in the republic. Consequently, a national security discourse that brings the elites and the masses together is being constructed, and the Trump administration is providing credibility for it.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has survived not just because of its security apparatus but also because its leaders have been able to manage public sentiments and intra-elite conflicts. And Iran’s leaders have found that President Trump’s hostility toward Iran is helping to rally otherwise resentful citizens behind the regime and create a new cohesive Islamist-nationalist ideology.

This could have a demobilizing effect on Iran’s underground but still vibrant civil society and further boost the Revolutionary Guards’ influence over foreign policy. There is less and less popular and elite opposition to Mr. Khamenei’s claim that if the Revolutionary Guards did not fight terrorists in Damascus, it would be fighting them in Tehran. It is likely that many will consider investment in the regime an investment in their own and their homeland’s security. What was once considered regime security is increasingly seen as national security.

For four decades, the American and Iranian governments have simultaneously pursued a system of reward and punishment against Iranian citizens for opposite goals. Washington has hoped to foment public uprisings leading to regime change; Tehran has sought compliance and regime durability.

Sanctions and isolation together with regime repression have often bred popular discontent, turning elections into political movements, and students and women into courageous protesters. Tapping into these sentiments, President Barack Obama conditioned better opportunities for the nation on a nuclear agreement in his messages on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. President Trump set a new bar for Iranian citizens in his Nowruz message on March 20: regime change.

Washington’s unreliable policy toward Iran is jeopardizing the Iranian people’s favourable view of the United States. Sanctions may have passed their optimal point of channelling public grievances against the regime, beyond which they only alienate Iranian citizens from the United States. The statements of American officials that they target the Iranian regime and not the people are a bad joke. To ordinary Iranians, they are targeting the people.

American policies are effectively empowering the hard-liners and pushing Iranian citizens toward the regime. Exhausted by 40 years of state repression and international pressure, Iranian citizens may very well shift their anger from sponsors of the former to the latter and signal a reluctant preference for those who wear the garb of Persian nationalism and national security.

Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, an associate professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, is the author of “Religious Statecraft: The Politics of Islam in Iran.”