Sima Shakhsari is a cultural anthropologist and teaches in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota. Shakhsari's book, titled Politics of Rightful Killing: Civil Society, Gender, and Sexuality in Weblogistan (Duke University Press, January 2020), is an ethnographic study of the Iranian "blogging revolution" during the "War on Terror."
Whose Revolution? A Reflection on The Iranian Uprisings | Iran
ملک یبقی مع الکفر و لا یبقی مع الظلم
گفتی که یک دیار
هرگز به ظلم و جور
نمی ماند بر پا و استوار
“Vahdat” – Iranian revolutionary Song
Since October of 2019, movements of contestation have broken out in different parts of the world from Lebanon to Chile, Iraq, and Iran, among others. Such contestations reveal the failure of neoliberalism and transnational capital, as well as the nation-states in responding to the legitimate demands of various groups of people. These contestations have made visible the potentiality of significant social transformations, and have created a space of hope for some who seek planetary justice, and political and socio-economic change. Without denying the importance of “hope” in mobilizing and pressing radical social change and social transformation through revolutions, we remain skeptical and concerned about the prospect of more militarism, war, and occupation. Having lived through the Iranian revolution of 1979, we believe that rather than investing in the modern notion of revolution as gearing towards the replacement of one nation-state with another – in “regime change” discourses in the context of Iran, for example – we need to map out both internal and external politics leading to current contestations and delineate the differences between the contexts and demands of the protesters in each location.
It is crucial to recognize the context and content of contestations, since regardless of their commonalities, they are not the same and cannot be understood without an interrogation of transnational connectivities, national conjunctures, as well as uneven geopolitical relations. In the specific case of Iran, an analysis of various internal and external actors with radically different agendas from forces invested in a top-down regime change to the disinvestment of the state elite in responding to peoples’ concerns regarding political, social, and economic justice is necessary. Indeed, the demands of those who are asking the state to be accountable towards its citizens are radically different from the mobilization of many forces that have long been collaborating with imperialist powers to change the direction of the events to their advantage.
The recent protests in Iran were triggered by the sudden hike in the gas price and the Iranian state’s austerity measures, which were also suggested by the IMF earlier in 2018. The Supreme Council for Economic Coordination between Forces, a new “war room” that was formed to respond to the economic devastation caused by the US sanctions, is responsible for the decision to cut subsidies. The formation of this “war room” shows the newly formed alliance between the right factions, the reformists, and the moderates in a political atmosphere, where discourses of “national security” are amplified in the face of outside pressures. It should be noted that the Iranian state has never been a homogeneous entity, but a site of contradiction and conflict between different political factions that have gone through drastic changes and have repeatedly shifted their alliances and political agendas in the history of the post-revolutionary Iran. This new alliance, which calls for unity in the face of foreign threat, has serious political ramifications for voices of dissent. It is by no accident that the moderate President Rohani acknowledged the legitimacy of “water protests” in 2018, but condemned the recent protests as foreign instigations. Yet, as history has proven, popular rebellions cannot be either avoided or contained or domesticated when the states fail to respond to their citizens’ concerns with the use of coercion to suppress dissent.
Over the years, economic sanctions, which precede Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the “Iran Deal,” have devastated ordinary Iranian people’s lives by making life necessities unaffordable, and by limiting access to life-saving medicine and medical technologies. In response to the sanctions, the Iranian state has developed “home-grown” refineries and water purification technologies that have resulted in environmental catastrophes, extreme air pollution, and lack of access to clean water in many provinces. As a result, the rate of cancer in Iran has sky-rocketed in the past few years, while cancer medicine has become increasingly rare. It is in the face of this dire situation that the Iranian state has imposed austerity measures to manage the economic crisis. Even though the liberalization of the economy in post-revolutionary Iran goes back to 1989, the state has accelerated austerity measures in response to the economic crisis caused by the sanctions. While a well-planned redistribution program could potentially help the Iranian economy and give back handouts (yaaraaneh) only to those who need it, the sudden removal of these subsidies without a viable redistribution plan has raised concerns about the increasing decline in the standard of living for most Iranians. The fact that the least privileged (often economically disenfranchised women,queers, refugees, working classes, and rural populations) cannot afford the cost of living while a small group of rich urban Iranians live a luxurious life, has also raised suspicions about corruption and sanctions profiteering. The protests in Iran, therefore, are a result of legitimate grievance of segments of the Iranian population who bear the brunt of the sanctions imposed by the U.S., the global neoliberal logic, and austerity measures of the Iranian state.
Even as we agree that many of the protests around the world are in one way or another connected to the failures of neoliberalism, a universalist approach that reduces all protests to a monolithic neoliberal logic may be partial, at best. Considering that the Iranian state’s austerity measures are in response to the economic sanctions, and knowing that the Islamic Republic (which for all practical purposes remains a welfare state) has implemented subsidy cuts in an attempt to redistribute wealth among those who need it the most (despite its flawed execution method), contestations to neoliberalism alone cannot explain the Iranian protests. With the same token, discourses of “corruption” do not explain the nuances of the Iranian politics, nor do they take into consideration the fragmentation in the Iranian state. In fact, some of the most contentious discussions and objections to the arrests, the austerity measures, and the repression of protests have been initiated by several members of the Iranian parliament, some well-known clergy, and a number of reformists who have been sidelined by the alliance between the political right, moderates, and the reformists in times of economic crisis and foreign invasion.
Our analysis of the polyvalence of the Iranian state also calls for a more nuanced explanation for the protests than kleptocracy. While we agree that there is corruption among some elements of the Iranian state and para-state entities, we do not believe that corruption alone can explain the economic devastation and political repression that have given rise to the protests. In addition, we refuse to subscribe to the orientalist logic that produces the binary of transparent liberal democracies versus nepotism in the Middle East. That is why instead of enshrining liberal democracy in the U.S. as an ideal model of governance, we believe that the violent repression of Black Lives Matters protests and the Standing Rock Water Protectors by the militarized police in the U.S., rampant corruption in the U.S. political system, and the less than democratic electoral processes that privilege capital to popular vote, make the idealized image of “America” as the desired model for the “future of democracy” in Iran highly questionable.
Furthermore, the history of the U.S. intervention, from the toppling of the 1953 democratically-elected government of Mohammad Mossadeq, to cyber-attacks and massive investments in “democratization projects” in Iran cannot be dismissed as “paranoia,” as it often is by “regime change” enthusiasts. In fact, the hijacking of protests by the U.S. war machine (which includes proxies) in post-revolutionary Iran have often culminated in state violence against multiple local movements, from the labor movement to women’s rights activism. The claims of supporting human rights and liberal democracy by the imperialistic “liberating” states or certain Iranian opposition groups in diaspora notwithstanding, opportunistic appropriations of protests in Iran only jeopardize these protests and put the protesters’ lives at risk, because the Iranian state accuses labor activists, women’s rights activists, and student activists of treason. The whole-sale treatment of protesters as foreign functionaries or regime change protesters by either the Iranian state or the regime-change apparatus, undermines the agency of Iranian protesters, while subjecting them to sheer violence.
We have repeatedly witnessed this trend in multiple protests, from the 2009 “green movement,” to the “Girls of the Revolution Street,” and the recent protests. The recurrng pattern in such appropriations, is the hypervisible figure of the oppressed young Iranian woman as the fetish object of orientalist and heteronormative rescue narratives that repeat the gendered colonial logic. It is not surprising that the graphic video of the moment of death of Neda Agha Soltan, a bystander who was killed in the street protests in 2009 went viral in social media. Pictures of Neda Agha Soltan as the paradigmatic figure of the vulnerable young Iranian woman was appropriated by the neo-conservative U.S. politicians and dubious Iranian opposition groups. It is hardly surprising then to see the image of Nikita Esfandiari, a young woman who was killed on the streets in the recent protests, to become the symbol of the vulnerability of Iranian protesters in 2019. As diasporic feminist scholars living in the US, we also need to sort out various forces with sometimes antagonistic demands involved in this process, and question our “imperial privilege” with the the militaristic agenda of Trump administration and its allies in the region. We support the domestic contestations by multiple activist groups, from women’s rights activists and labor union organizers to environmental justice activists, among others. And we are adamantly against the U.S. and Israeli-backed regime change agendas. We believe that the U.S. intervention in the name of “support” will only result in heightened security measures and surveillance, violence, and poverty, as the “post-liberation” Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated. The Iranian women’s rights activists, for example, have repeatedly expressed their opposition to U.S. intervention and opportunistic appropriations of their struggles. Yet, their voices are often overshadowed by the representable figures that claim themselves to be the authentic voice of Iranian people.
Our analyses should also include attention to the uncomfortable tensions that exceed a reductive anti-imperialist position. For example, we need to pay attention to the slogans in the Iranian protests that nostalgically salute Reza Pahlavi, the nationalist modernizer and authoritarian Shah of Iran in the early 20th century. We need to understand why the post-revolutionary state policies have led to cultural amnesia and a nostalgic erasure of violence, which included the removal of hijab, forced Persianization, economic disparities, concessions to the U.S., and the imprisonment and torture of political opposition – be it communists, socialists, religious and secular nationalists, students, or women activists – during the reign of Reza Shah and his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. While we do not deny that the royalist forces outside of Iran, led by the dethroned Pahlavi family, are invested in regime change, we cannot dismiss the protests as solely instigations by foreign functionaries. Instead, we believe that nostalgic slogans calling for the return of monarchy are reflections of the failure of the post-revolutionary Iranian state in effectively responding to people’s grievances. The romanticized and nostalgic calls for a return to an “Americanized” pre-revolutionary Iran are also connected to lures of consumer capitalism and the idealized image of “America,” produced in cultural representations that erase the past and present of settler colonialism, racism, police brutality, anti-immigrant laws and sentiments, and poverty in the U.S.
In the same vein, we need to take seriously the anti-Arab sentiments that have a particular genealogy in the history of Iranian nationalism that is often articulated through the myth of Aryan-ness. In recent years, Islamophobic and anti-Arab sentiments have been magnified in reaction to the Islamic Republic’s geopolitical alliances in Lebanon and Palestine. However, in a time when economic pressures are devastating the Iranian population, slogans such as “No to Gaza, No to Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran” are not solely informed by nationalist discourses. They are also reflections of scarcity and the logic of competition and survival in a time when the sanctions have made life extremely difficult, to the point of diminishing social solidarity. The anger at the Iranian state for failing to meet the needs of its citizens is also connected to the intensification of xenophobic and anti-Afghan refugee sentiments in Iran. While we need to hold the state accountable to all of its citizens and to refugees, regardless of their ethnicity and religion, we should recognize that the conditions of economic scarcity and political repression that have given rise to protests are not separate from the geopolitical policies and the interests of the Israeli state and the U.S. in instability and sectarianism in the Middle East. The fact that the U.S. and Israeli war mongers rejoice in the prospect of regime change in Iran is exactly because of Iran’s critical role in curbing the Israeli state’s expansive policies in Palestine and Lebanon, and its impediment to the complete geopolitical and economic dominance of the U.S. in the region. This is exactly why, as transnational feminist scholars, we believe that our contestations to the Iranian state’s policies should not be informed by racist discourses that conflate Islam with terrorism and demonize Islamic resistance groups in Palestine and Lebanon. Instead of assuming that a feminist and/or queer agenda would only be compatible with dogmatic secularist politics that reject any association with Islam or Islamic resistance groups, we need to move beyond an inflationary approach to Islam or the state. The Iranian religious and secular feminists have already established effective coalitional strategies by blurring the secular/religious binary and by changing discriminatory laws without succumbing to religious or secular fundamentalisms.
Therefore, rather than a myopic state-focused analysis that reifies the myth of the sovereignty of nation-states, in our analyses, we need to think critically about transnational connectivities, uneven geopolitical relationships, colonial histories, imperialist agendas, and settler colonial practices that have created (and continue to create) conflict through divide and conquer strategies in South West Asia and North Africa. At the same time, we have to recognize that the modern nation-state’s demand for “deep horizontal comradeship” and sacrifice often erases difference, while subjugating the nation’s internal others. That is exactly why we need to reject competing forms of state nationalism that. ironically, deploy hegemonic discourses of “national security” and “anti-terrorism” to eliminate the nation’s internal others during the “war on terror” As such, in the context of Iran, we need to be cognizant of the forms of nationalism that exert material and epistemic violence against Kurdish and Arab Iranians, while refusing to be complicit with the U.S. expansionist projects.
Perhaps instead of succumbing to sectarian politics, nationalist sentiments, dogmatic secularism, fixed and exclusionary modernist identities, or romanticized notions of revolution as the mobilizing bases of movements, we could take a lesson from those feminist activists and scholars who have been patiently doing this work in Iran and other parts of South West Asia and North Africa for decades. After all, to envision a viable revolutionary future, we have no choice but to integrate into our analyses critiques of nationalism, colonial pasts and presents, uneven geopolitical relationships, and biopolitical and necropolitical practices that fold some into life while making others killable in national and transnational contexts. At the same time, we need to listen carefully to the voices, sounds, and silences of those challenging economic exploitation, political repression, and cultural domination within the context of the nation-states. That is the longue durée of revolution and hope.