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Iran 37 Years Later: Any Hope for Reforms?

By Massoumeh Torfeh

12 Feb 2016

From the moment the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi said in a radio broadcast, "I heard the voice of your revolution", and official newspapers ran the headline, "The Shah Has Gone", to the day when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini arrived at Mehrabad airport in Tehran spanned a mere three months.

Yet, the images of those months will never leave the collective memory of those who witnessed the Iranian Revolution of February 12, 1979. Nor the collective disillusionment of millions who expected that the revolution would have at least done away with dictatorship.

Iranians march to mark 1979 revolution

Thirty-seven years on, the Islamic Republic, established by Ayatollah Khomeini in the April of that year, has delivered many of his promises of independence and Islamisation, but the popular demand for freedom and justice, central to the revolution, remains unfulfilled.

Revolutionary Narrative

The months and years that followed the revolution were dominated by the revolutionary narrative asserting itself. These were the years of confrontation between the Islamic Republic and the different forces that had made the revolution: the Islamists, the democrats, the nationalists and the secular groups as well as women and minority rights groups.

In a recent speech, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reminded us of the main tenets that defined "the geometry of the revolution": "The issue of people, country's independence, commitment to Islamic fundamentals, fighting the arrogance [of the United States and the Israel], the issue of Palestine, the issue of people's livelihood and eradication of poverty are the main lines of the revolution."

Many Iranians are now correctly pointing to the fact that despite the economic and political shortcomings, in comparison to the rest of the region, Iran benefits from good security and peace.

He conveniently left out the quest for "freedom" that was the first in the revolution's slogan: "Freedom, Independence, Islamic Republic."

Many Iranians are now correctly pointing to the fact that despite the economic and political shortcomings, in comparison with the rest of the region, Iran benefits from good security and peace. This is an undeniable achievement.

Moreover, the recent success of President Hassan Rouhani in nuclear negotiations has brought new hopes for change. Rouhani, by no means a typical reformist, has taken the chance and emboldened his rhetoric on "moderation".

Moderation as A Vision

This year's anniversary celebrations have coincided with two important elections, one to the parliament and the other to the Assembly of Experts, providing him with ample opportunity to spell out his policies.

“Moderation is not just a system but a vision, a path, and we must revive it,” he said in a recent speech at a conference on women and development. Yet his speech was not even allowed to be broadcast.

The supreme leader, who has held that seat for 27 years, is in no mood for change. He benefits from full support from the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps whose commanders are boasting military success in Syria and Iraq and a raised profile in the whole of the Middle East and North Africa.

Politically, Khamenei also controls the four revolutionary councils that take his instructions and produce the required results in all elections and whose combined power rests above those of the president and the parliament.

Photo dated October 1978 of Ayatollah Khomeini in his garden in Neauphle-Le Chateau a few months before his return to Iran [AFP]

Like the Shah, Iran's spiritual leader has also heard the voice of the revolution, not once but twice: First in 1997 when his preferred candidate Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri received 25 percent of the votes compared with the reformist Mohammad Khatami who garnered 70 percent.

And again in 2009 when millions demonstrated against his preferred candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, supporting instead the more moderate Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

By his instructions, both men are still under house arrest. The name and photo of the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, is banned from the media, and ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been barred from elections, all for the sin of supporting reformism.

Pillars of the Islamic Republic

If these men who are the main pillars of the Islamic Republic could be accused of "sedition" and "disloyalty", it is easy to assume what destiny awaits others who dare to oppose the regime.

Scores of prisoners of conscience have over the years been serving prison terms for peacefully exercising their human rights. Among them were government critics, journalists, lawyers, trade unionists, student activists, and minority and women's rights activists.

The rivalry is now intensifying between the moderate-reformist 'diplomacy' camp and the hard-line 'military' victory camp.

Iran is home to one of the world's five biggest prisons for news and information providers and is ranked 173rd out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters without Borders press freedom index.

Most importantly, despite the mass participation of women in the revolution, women's rights have gone from bad to worse. Women face widespread discrimination under the law and are denied equal rights in marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance.

The women's movement has not stood still and has been pioneering in the ideas it has developed for peaceful protests, setting an example for the Green Movement of 2009. Yet it has not been allowed any breathing space.

Officials In Iran Boast That They Hold Regular Elections.

True, since the revolution there has been some 40 elections. Yet every one of those has been highly exclusivist, denying a major part of the population the right to vote for the candidates of their choice. The Guardian Council has only allowed candidates approved by the establishment.

The rivalry is now intensifying between the moderate-reformist "diplomacy" camp and the hard-line "military" victory camp.

"What can diplomacy do to solve the world's problems?" asks the hard-line Basij commander Mohammad-Reza Naqdi.

"It is our military success that has frightened the enemy, softening its position in the talks," he claims.

So the question in the minds of most Iranians is this: If the guru of reform, the former president Mohammad Khatami, was unable to create change after two terms in office, and if the mass demonstrations of 2009 were too weak to stand up to the regime, could Rouhani's success in delivering on the nuclear talks achieve any better? The answer is most probably negative.

Ironically, the narrative of "reform" and "moderation" has never been revolutionary enough to achieve success. If Khomeini was able to create the powerful anti-Pahlavi narrative that led the revolution, the call for reform has been too subservient in comparison. Conversely, by silencing all opposition the regime might have blocked its own political development.

"Long live hope, long live reform," goes one reformist campaign poster. Will that long-awaited hope have a chance after 37 years?

Not if we go by what the supreme leader says: "Beware of those who want to change the Islamic Republic from within."

Dr Massoumeh Torfeh is the former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan and is currently a research associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specialising in Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.